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Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network
17/07/2017
Rollout of the National Broadband Network

CARTER, Mr Wayne, Member, Morley Internet Action Group

ACTING CHAIR: Welcome. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. It is nice to have you here. I invite you to make a brief opening statement and then we will move to questions from the committee.

Mr Carter : Thank you for the opportunity of appearing here today. I am here representing people across the suburbs of Nollamara, Dianella, Noranda and Morley. These are all what I would call inner city locations being some 10 kilometres from the CBD of a state capital. Late in 2016, I attended a public forum with some 120 residents from the area, who were concerned about internet access. I heard from people who could not even get dial-up speeds. I sat and listened to speaker after speaker talk about their circumstance, and I could not believe what I was hearing. I was considered one of the lucky ones. In my home I get a usual download speed of about 2.4 megabits per second. It was something akin to a Monty Python sketch but without the punchline. I heard stories of families putting children on buses after school to go to friends or relatives in other suburbs just so they could do their homework, schools not having sufficient bandwidth to properly support their studies, people considering moving house as their children approach tertiary studies, and businesses unable to compete or offer services and leaving the area, because of poor or unreliable internet connectivity.

In my own case, as a public servant, I often need to be able to work remotely but cannot download large files on my home computer, because my connection is so poor. For example, while blessed with speeds between 2.4 and three megabits per second normally, last Friday afternoon I was trying to do some work from home and it dropped to between 0.6 and 0.3 megabits per second, with an upload speed of about 0.2 megabits per second. It makes moving large documents or even accessing real-time services difficult. This is a Third World problem in a First World nation.

It beggars belief that a government pushing an innovation agenda has not done anything to fix internet black holes less than 10 kilometres from our CBD. I invoked Monty Python earlier; sadly, it appears to me that the response is more akin to Utopia: no transparency, little accountability and more spin than substance. I'm told that this area can expect the NBN some time in late 2019, but the noise surrounding the rollout does not provide me with confidence. In my professional life I'm used to managing large infrastructure projects, and the one thing I know is that it is easy to have slippage or—and this, in my mind, is the critical element—cutting corners and accepting reduced quality in order to meet deadlines. It's a common saying in project-land that you can have any two of time, cost or quality, but you can't have all three. I will leave it to those already on the NBN to testify which got left out.

But I understand that when it gets rolled out in my area, which currently has 30- to 40-year-old copper technology and where internet services drop out when it rains as pits get flooded, a fibre-to-the-node solution is being planned. We already know that Morley's copper network is problematic, and while I'm no technical expert, I fail to see how a proposed fibre-to-the-node solution will be effective. Close to the node may be okay, but I fear a great many residents will still be left with internet connections no better than they now experience, if they're the lucky ones. If solutions like fibre-to-the-kerb—and I just here note my preference of K for kerb—are not considered, I believe the NBN will leave my community with a second-rate and old technology solution, condemning the area to second-class citizenships of this innovation nation.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you for championing, in addition to coming with your evidence today, the case of the K spelling of kerb. The evidence you give is valuable. We are hearing from a range of stakeholders across the country. Some have direct involvement in the rollout. We heard people earlier from Curtin University about a fibre connection to do with the SKA project, where they're delivering 100 gigabits per second, which is just phenomenal. I know there are people in Tasmania with fibre-to-the-premises who can now take up not 100 gigabits per second but one gigabit per second, which is itself pretty extraordinary, yet you're talking about areas that either have no line broadband or struggle to get even one megabit per second. Your community is going to be waiting another 2½ years and is expected to get fibre-to-the-node?

Mr Carter : That's what I understand. Nollamara may be slightly earlier, but the core areas of Dianella, where I live, Morley and Noranda are 2019. I checked on the weekend to make sure, but it's showing late 2019, in the last tranche.

ACTING CHAIR: Have you as a community group been able to have any communication with representatives of NBN Co to talk about the timetable and raise the issue of the relative equity? Like you, I'm a Western Australian. There are communities in areas like South Perth and Mount Pleasant that have had fibre-to-the-premises for some time. There are other areas facing greater existing social and economic disadvantage that are waiting longer and will ultimately get a significantly worse technology. Are those things you've been able to raise with NBN Co?

Mr Carter : My understanding is that other members of the group, not me personally, have been trying to raise those issues. I'm not sure about the degree of success. I understand a petition is being circulated at the moment for tabling in federal parliament that will raise some of those issues as well. As I said, NBN's website is not particularly helpful in trying to get some details of what exactly is happening and when. It's fairly generic. I spent an hour or so looking at it last night just to refresh myself. There seemed to be more spin than substance in a lot of it. I understand it's probably a marketing tool in most cases, so you have to accept a bit of that.

ACTING CHAIR: You've given some examples which are useful, such as families taking their kids from one place to another in order to enable them to do homework. We've had evidence from people in regional communities where families will take the laptop, if they need to a systems update, and drive a few hundred kilometres to someone's house that has good wi-fi in order to do that. In those cases there is also rationing of data and telling the children what they can and can't do in order to prioritise their use. Are there any other examples from households or businesses in your community that you can share with us?

Mr Carter : Interestingly, I read the paper over lunch today and saw an article with a local member of my community saying exactly that about children unable to do homework. That wasn't the person who raised the issue at the public forum; it's the tip of the iceberg. I'm sure if there's one or two, there's definitely more.

ACTING CHAIR: If, after waiting 2½ years, you get a form of technology that is very patchy, is essentially obsolete at the point of delivery for some people and doesn't meet what will then be fairly standard expectations or needs then what's the reality of the digital divide for your community?

Mr Carter : If I understand the technology and the issues as primarily with the Morley exchange area and the old copper technology that will still be relied upon to provide that service, I'm fearful there will not be marked improvement in people's productivity. You would expect, 10 kilometres from the CBD, in a part of a city where there's a large business presence as well, that you would be able fully partake of the future opportunities in education and the ability to study and take part in this digital economy. Things like education and health are all being delivered online these days. To not be able to take part in it suggests there is something wrong with the area we're living in.

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: Thank you for your testimony today. Given that the rollout to Morley is around 2019, according to the rollout plan, what confidence do you have that the plan as it currently is outlined will meet the needs and expectations of your community, and what are the potential downsides or risks of not pursuing a technology that is as best as can be achieved? What is your community missing out on by not going down a different path?

Mr Carter : As I said in the last bit of my statement, my prime concern is that when we finally get it we will still miss out, because the technology being suggested for the area, especially the Noranda-Morley-Dianella area, relies on a fibre-to-the-node solution to the local exchange. That's not where the problem is to some extent. Yes, I understand from talking to my internet service provider that the exchange is getting close to being full, and I heard stories about people who can't get broadband, because the technologies, lines or capacities aren't there. It just means that people will continue to miss out. I am talking about the serious stuff about education, about businesses being able to operate, like photographic businesses trying to upload photographs to their website. Let's not talk about the social inclusion—the Facebooks, Netflix—that most people take for granted in our community. They are missing out on those. While I know they are superfluous to some extent, they are a part of the social fabric.

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: How consuming is this as an issue for the members of your group and the members that you talk to?

Mr Carter : I went along out of interest to an open public forum that was called before Christmas last year. As I said, I am one of the lucky ones; I generally get a reasonable 2.4 megabits. You shake your heads, but at least my wife can tell me when it is running slow for her Facebook. But I was flabbergasted about the people's stories there. I was sitting there thinking, 'I cannot believe this.' It was like Monty Python; it's a sheer luxury type of arrangement that is affecting people's lives. People were telling stories and some people were almost close to tears when they talked about having to move from areas where they liked to live because they were worried about their kid getting access to education and to tertiary studies.

Senator O'NEILL: Thank you very much, Mr Carter. One of the things that delights me in this job is how many great citizens we meet who take on civic responsibility to participate in forums like this to speak up for the local community. I want to go to some of the stories you were talking about there. I come from a small business family background as well. We have heard quite a lot of evidence across the country about businesses that have fallen between the cracks, where people have not been able to get a decent answer out of NBN or their retail service provider, and the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman has not been able to help them. We heard today that people are going to their local council asking for help—finding no port in the storm of the NBN. When you heard those stories about local businesses and local families, could you go to some of the detail of how this botched rollout is actually impacting people's lives and their business capacity.

Mr Carter : I am not sure I would use the word 'botched'. I am not having a go at them. I think it is a very complex rollout but I do not think it has been very well handled. I do not think they have set on the right technology solutions. If you call that botched then, yes, I would say it is botched. Again, it comes down to connectivity and speed access.

Senator O'NEILL: What is the story of those businesses? What were they telling you? The people who were distressed, what was their concern?

Mr Carter : One of the people speaking ran a photography business. You see them online. He could not actually have people access and download information from his website because of the upload speed of his service. More importantly, he could not load photos of weddings and that sort of stuff. He had great difficulty over a great period of time. His comment was it was affecting his business. That was just one example.

Senator O'NEILL: One the things we have not really taken a lot of evidence about is the loss of ubiquity when there was a change from 93 per cent of the population getting the fibre and having this mix. Your photographer would have clients who might have a higher level of access, who have a set of expectations around how the internet works, who then come to a business, which might be an outstanding business—he might be the best photographer they have ever had and he recorded their wedding day in the most wonderful way—but because his internet speed is inadequate and does not match with their experience, there is no ubiquity in the service and there is no explanation for it. It starts to sound like an excuse, I expect, when you say, 'Sorry, my internet is slow.' It is akin to 'the cheque's in the mail' perhaps. Is this another problem that is impacting on your community in terms of your businesses that want to compete but can't?

Mr Carter : It is important. If you look at technology, we used to all have mail. People used to complain when mail took two days to deliver instead of a single day or a week to deliver instead of a single day. As technology rises, everybody has an expectation. Our businesses are feeling they cannot meet that expectation, and their competitors have better, faster online access in a world that is moving towards digital technology in the innovation nation. If you cannot keep pace with that as a business, you are going to suffer. That is the general sense I am getting from our businesses. They would like to be more online but they do not have the capacity. If you don't have internet access or a reasonable level of capacity, you're not going to invest in digital technology because it's next to useless. These businesses are running the risk of falling between the cracks because they can't move to the business model that's needed.

Senator O'NEILL: You spoke about people making decisions to move and leave the community because they were fearful that their children would be unable to undertake university studies. I note you also spoke about kids getting on buses and going to relatives' houses to do their homework. Is that really going on, Mr Carter? People probably find that hard to believe.

Mr Carter : I sat in a public meeting and heard the stories of somebody standing up and saying, 'My kids go on a bus every night to my cousin's place in the next suburb, which does have broadband, to do their homework.' They couldn't even get broadband—they had dial-up. I don't disbelieve that person. I am taking at face value the same thing about people considering moving. From memory, there was a gentleman who said that his house was on the market. He was moving not because he didn't like the area—he loved the area; it was close—but because the kids were about to go to university. So my answer is: as far as I'm aware, that's a real story. I don't believe this person had a reason to stand up in front of a public meeting and lie.

Senator O'NEILL: Did you have any real estate agents at your public meeting?

Mr Carter : None that made themselves aware.

Senator O'NEILL: Perhaps you might want to take that on notice, Mr Carter, because I'm certainly hearing in my community, and we have heard in other places, that whether you have the real NBN—the fibre—or whether you have the node is starting to become a differential about whether people can have access. It's showing up in my region, from reports, as a differential of $15,000 to $20,000 on a $600,000 sale of a property. Where people have the real NBN, they're getting that as a premium, and where they're not getting it, people are deciding against purchasing in that suburb.

Mr Carter : I'll take that on notice. I can ask around in the group. It doesn't surprise me. I know I would think that way if I was looking to move somewhere from where I bought 20 or 30 years ago. I'd be looking at connectivity because that's my life now.

Senator O'NEILL: That's the future.

Mr Carter : That's the future.

ACTING CHAIR: I'm conscious of the time because we have our next witness via teleconference, so I'm going to go to Senator Smith.

Senator SMITH: Welcome, Mr Carter. Is the Morley Internet Action Group the same as the Morley Noranda—

Mr Carter : Sorry, yes, it is.

Senator SMITH: Great. I'm looking forward to coming to the public meeting on Wednesday night that Amber-Jade Sanderson has invited me to.

Mr Carter : I believe you'll be there, yes.

Senator SMITH: Are we expecting 120 people again?

Mr Carter : I would like to think we would.

Senator SMITH: Excellent. It might be a good opportunity to talk about GST reform as well.

Mr Carter : I think I sent you an email on that!

Senator SMITH: Excellent! Mr Carter, what's your position in the action group?

Mr Carter : I'm just a member. It's a community action group. We don't have any formal relationship—office-bearers, et cetera. It's facilitated by a group of us.

Senator SMITH: Like a collective?

Mr Carter : A collective. It was facilitated by the local members—

Senator SMITH: Mr Hammond and the local Labor member, Amber-Jade Sanderson.

Mr Carter : It's an informal group. It's a local collective.

Senator SMITH: Without revealing too much, are you at Phoenix Street, Dianella?

Mr Carter : I am, yes.

Senator SMITH: I was interested in your opening submission where you talked about your previous experience as a public servant.

Mr Carter : My current experience as a public servant, yes.

Senator SMITH: Could you explain to me what that is, because you drew a link with your experience in infrastructure projects.

Mr Carter : I'm currently a senior project director for infrastructure delivery in the Department of Finance in Western Australia. Basically, I run a project manager practice. My part is primarily health projects, so I run a practice with about 30 project managers dealing with hospital facilities across the state. A lot of my work involves large documents, et cetera. Most of my work involves problem-solving and managing staff and reporting on those projects. I've had a long history in infrastructure projects.

Senator SMITH: That's important to know, because it does support what you heard in the public meeting.

Mr Carter : Yes, I understand that.

Senator SMITH: How many years have you been in the Western Australian public service?

Mr Carter : Thirty-odd, from memory—not always, though. I have a previous history in local government and the private sector.

Senator SMITH: Without necessarily naming them in detail, can you give us a sense of the types of infrastructure projects you might have been involved in over that period, or are they all in the primary health delivery space?

Mr Carter : No, I was the project director for the stadium upgrade here. There were issues with sport, culture and arts projects.

ACTING CHAIR: This is fascinating stuff, but we are not sure how this fits within the terms of reference.

Mr Carter : I want to work in services upgrade in remote communities.

ACTING CHAIR: That's a great credit to you, Mr Carter. I'm just not sure about the line of questioning.

Senator SMITH: I just want to read to you some comments that were detailed in the strategic review of the National Broadband Network rollout that was undertaken when the government changed in 2013. In particular it says, at 2.1 on page 35:

At 30 September 2013, the rollout of the brownfields FTTP network was 48 percent behind the planned Premises Passed in the Corporate Plan, with only 227,483 Premises Passed at that date. Of these premises only 153,977 are Serviceable by NBN Co. The greenfields and Fixed Wireless rollouts are also behind Corporate Plan;

Then—I think more importantly for where I want to go to with my questioning—at the bottom of page 35 it says:

The fibre rollout project will take three years longer to complete than indicated in the Corporate Plan, with a revised end date of June 2024;

So do you think that residents in Noranda, Nollamara and Morley—indeed, residents in the action group—would be alarmed to be reminded that, rather than the rollout happening in 2019—and I want to come to the kerb comments in a moment—it could actually have been completed in June 2024?

Mr Carter : If I understand what you're asking, it is: are people prepared to wait longer for a better end result? That's my understanding of your question.

Senator SMITH: No, my question draws out the fact that under the previous administration the NBN rollout would have been completed not in 2020 but in 2024.

Mr Carter : Okay. So what you're saying is that the original proposal put forward by the previous government had a longer time frame. My comment there was that I understand that was a different proposal. If you're asking me personally if I would be prepared to wait longer for an infinitely better service, given I'm looking in the future, the answer would be yes. I can't speak for every resident to make the same vision, and again I'm speaking from a position where I have a great 2.4-megabit-per-second service.

Senator SMITH: I grew up in Nollamara, and my parents still live in Nollamara, actually. I've sent them a text to find out how they describe their NBN speeds. More importantly, the Eastern Suburbs Reporter

Senator O'NEILL: Have they seen these?

Senator SMITH: I'm waiting for them. They're notoriously slow at responding to their eldest son's—

ACTING CHAIR: You didn't send them an email asking them to return a photograph! They might be uploading.

Senator SMITH: I am looking forward to coming to the meeting. I suspect I went to school with many of the people's children and that sort of thing. But, in all seriousness, I think this goes to a genuinely valuable part of your submission. I agree with Mr Wilson: I much prefer K for kerb to C for curb. But could we stick to what is a really valuable part of your contribution, and that is the discussion around fibre to the kerb as a way of bringing forward people's access to the NBN. In your opening statement, you say, 'If solutions like fibre to the kerb'—with a K—'are not considered, I believe the NBN will leave my community with a second-rate and old technology solution.' I think that's a fair comment. You might be familiar with an article that appeared in the Eastern Suburbs Reporter recently, which is headed 'NBN closer to more homes'. It said:

ABOUT 70,000 houses across Perth will have access to the National Broadband Network … that will bring fibre closer to homes.

NBN unveiled the fibre-to-the-curb (FTTC) technology on Friday, saying it was the first broadband wholesaler in the world to roll it out on a mass scale.

What's your level of understanding about how fibre to the kerb will be rolled out to your communities, or the communities that are represented by the Morley-Noranda action group.

Mr Carter : My understanding is that it has not been considered in this current rollout and that the solution for 2019, if it gets there, will be a fibre-to-the-node solution.

Senator SMITH: If I brought news of a fibre-to-the-kerb solution on Wednesday night, how do you think the community would react?

Mr Carter : I would think that there would be some element of pleasure or joy in that.

Senator SMITH: Nothing motivates me more than the idea that something can't be done.

Mr Carter : I understand that.

Senator SMITH: So I'm very much looking forward to joining you and others on Wednesday night.

Mr Carter : One of the reasons I was keen to come was to make that point: if you are going to give us a solution, give us a first-rate solution.

Senator SMITH: Just to end, then: you support GST distribution reform?

Mr Carter : Immensely so! Outside that. Sorry, it depends on which way you want to redistribute it.

Senator SMITH: We might set up—

Mr Carter : That would be a different subcommittee.

Senator SMITH: the Morley-Noranda GST reform action group.

ACTING CHAIR: Happy to join one of the special subcommittees. Senator Smith, you and I at least of the five here today will be on that in a flash.

Senator URQUHART: Mr Carter, you talked about late 2019, but you were a bit optimistic about whether or not that was there. I just wanted to let you know that NBN, as Senator Smith keeps talking about, is 313,000 premises ahead of its rollout target. Every time I read or hear that I think: 'Okay, they're worried about numbers. It is not actually about the service that is being provided but about how fast we can roll this out so we can stand up and say, "We've done a fantastic job because we've gone past that."' We do not hear anything about the service zero households where people have to wait much, much longer for an NBN service. And we have heard, only just last week, in relation to the Choice survey—I'm not sure whether you are aware of it—that showed that 62 per cent of households in Australia suffered broadband disconnections, dropouts and slow speeds in the last six months. I did want to talk to a bit about this. You said that you had a petition that was coming to the federal parliament. Did that arise out of the public forum or was that something that had been happening for a period of time?

Mr Carter : My recollection is—Tim Hammond was leading that, as the local member, and he was at that forum. I cannot say that it actually arose out of that forum. It certainly was something that came adjunct to, after that, forum.

Senator URQUHART: You had about 120 people at that forum?

Mr Carter : Yes. It was probably slightly more, but 120 is conservative.

Senator URQUHART: I don't know whether you can answer this or not, but I am just really interested in the cross-section of those 120 at that forum, because we had an NBN forum in a place called Queenstown on the west coast of Tasmania some time ago—

Mr Carter : I've been there.

Senator URQUHART: Once been there you never forget it—the bald hills. It is beautiful.

Mr Carter : My great-grandmother on my mother's side was born there.

Senator URQUHART: There you go. Fantastic. We had about 150 at that forum, and it was a very diverse mix of the community. Because the west coast of Tasmania has a high level of mining, we heard lots of stories from businesses and companies who said that they actually had to put their information on a USB stick and then put it in the mail to China rather than rely on the internet, because they couldn't rely on it. Do you know what the cross-mix of, say, business people, community people, schoolkids—what the mixture was who attended that public forum?

Mr Carter : I couldn't tell you with any degree of accuracy. I would say that the larger cohort would have been people with families and children. A lot of the topics were about education and education services et cetera. There was some business stuff, but I would say the majority of people were concerned about education, which would reflect a cross-section of the area, really.

ACTING CHAIR: We will have one last small question from Mr Mitchell and then we are going to go to our next witness.

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: Very briefly, Mr Carter, you are a dedicated and long-term public servant, I take it.

Mr Carter : I like to think so.

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: What is your professional view, I guess, on the notion that a very expensive project gets rolled out and, as we have seen in the media, the NBN is already planning upgrades to the rollout. In terms of public process, what is your view on that?

Mr Carter : Scope always changes in projects. The better the planning, the less change of scope because there are fewer unknowns. A project the size of the NBN is going to be problematic in some areas, but it becomes more problematic if you do not have a good starting foundation and a good project plan.

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: Does it surprise you that they are planning upgrades before their rollouts are even finished?

Mr Carter : It does to some extent. If we have projects where things have to change, it is because things are not working. I suspect there is a bit of that there. As I said, it is a tried and true—time-cost-quality is the holy triangle. The basic rule is you can only have any two: pick which ones you want. It does not surprise me that the NBN rollout is proceeding at a fast pace. Cost is probably a given, so it is quality that is suffering.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Carter, for appearing on behalf of the Morley Internet Action Group. Please feel free to provide us with any further information in writing, particularly after Wednesday night and the very promising visit from Senator Smith!

Senator SMITH: Thank you, Mr Wilson!

Mr Carter : I am sure the group looks forward to it.

Senator SMITH: We will find some time to talk GST!

Mr Carter : I'd better tell them to put a stop to the pyre they're building!

ACTING CHAIR: We thank you for your evidence today.