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Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network - 17/06/2011 - Rollout of the National Broadband Network

CORBIN, Ms Teresa, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Communications Consumer Action Network

GADIR, Mr Jonathan, Senior Policy Adviser, Australian Communications Consumer Action Network

[11:58]

ACTING CHAIR: I welcome representatives of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I advise you that these hearings are formal proceedings of the parliament and warrant the same respect as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. Ms Corbin, would you like to make an opening statement to the committee?

Ms Corbin : By way of background, ACCAN approaches these bills with four principles underlying our work towards our broadband future. Firstly, is high quality affordable and accessible broadband, secondly, consumers should not be made worse off by any policy changes, thirdly, consumer protection rules should be built in and, fourthly, services should be provided in the context of the competitive and fair market. ACCAN supports be the fibre deployment bill. We think it is a sensible and logical set of requirements to ensure that new developments are not left behind during the fibre rollout.

In terms of the issues raised by the greenfield fibre operators, the consumer interest here is not so much in who is providing the pit and pipe and doing installation of the fibre. ACCAN, as the consumer voice in this space, is simply interested in ensuring that it is being done and also ensuring that consumers are able to be fully informed about what type of telecommunications infrastructure a particular development is getting before they buy into it. For that reason we also welcome the revised arrangements announced this week. They give a bit of extra clarity for developers about responsibilities of both NBN Co. and Telstra.

Mr Gadir : In our submission we drew the committee's attention to the policy arrangement for developments of less than 100 lots where Telstra will provide copper or fibre, except in some limited circumstances where they might provide a wireless phone of some type. The government's policy statement and policy intent is a good one, but this type of wireless phone will be deployed only in some limited circumstances. Telstra has already been providing wireless phones in some circumstances under its USO obligations where, for whatever reason, it chooses not to install copper in that particular premises. So it is not an entirely new situation. However, during the NBN roll-out period we do hope the parliament will keep a watchful eye on how Telstra is interpreting that policy of limited circumstances.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you. I was going to ask if you were aware of the most recent announcements this week and whether that did provide further clarity. So, thank you, you have already addressed that. Beyond the statement that was released by the minister this week, do you believe there are other areas of clarity that you would like to see occur in the future?

Ms Corbin : What we are most concerned about is the timeframe. How long do consumers in these limited circumstances actually need to wait? Even though this might be a small group of people it is still a significant proportion of Australians from our perspective that may not get broadband for a significant amount of time. They need to make plans and adjustments based on however long it is going to be. So it is important from our perspective that Telstra makes this very clear as soon as possible.

Mr Gadir : Our concern is that the commercial imperative for Telstra might be to say, 'NBN fibre is coming soon so we are not going to install copper,' but they will define 'soon' to suit Telstra rather than what is in fact a reasonable time for a consumer to wait.

Mr TURNBULL: I wanted to raise an issue with you that Mr Wolfe from the Housing Industry Association had mentioned to me after he had given his evidence. He said that in the pre-NBN era, if that is the right term, Telstra or its predecessors paid for both the pits and pipes and the copper connectivity network. If your understanding?

Mr Gadir : I do not have the knowledge of the property development industry to answer that.

Mr TURNBULL: Okay. One thing we want to run by you—and I raised this with the HIA as well—is that under the current arrangements some greenfield developments will be connected with cable by NBN. There will be issues about timeliness and so forth. Other developments will be connected instead with copper from Telstra which presumably at some point will be replaced by cable by the NBN. It has been put to us that that is discriminatory and unnecessarily so. It has been put to us that there should be an amendment to this bill which would enable a developer to connect the premises in his or her development to fibre-optic cable, with a private contractor, suitably qualified of course, who would have to do so in accordance with the technical specifications laid down and then be able to require the NBN to acquire that cable. In other words, a developer would be able to get on with the job, get the greenfield development connected to cable and get appropriately reimbursed, so you would not have a situation where you would have a development at one end of the street connected with cable and a new one down the other end, for whatever reason, connected with copper. Would an amendment of that kind meet some of the concerns that your organisation has had?

Mr Gadir : I am not sure that it would have an impact on that specific problem of Telstra providing interim wireless phones. I would imagine Telstra has obligations under the USO that would continue irrespective of that arrangement. As for whether it might have an impact on the problem, in the category of lots that are 100 or fewer, which are now Telstra's responsibility, I would have to take that on notice. I would need to consider it.

Ms Corbin : It would be hard to know whether, in fact, there would be developers that would take that up. We are not experts in that area. Obviously a focus is that we want consumers to get good broadband as soon as they can.

Mr TURNBULL: That is the objective. The objective would be that a developer could either (a) call on the NBN to connect the development with cable or (b), if it were not a qualifying development, proceed with Telstra or (c) regardless of whether it was over or under the 100 premises threshold, get a private sector contractor to do the work and, as long as it met the technical requirements, the NBN would be required to take that on board. It has been put to us that that would accelerate the deployment.

Mr Gadir : That may be the case, although I do not have the expert knowledge.

Mr TURNBULL: I just wanted to put it to you fairly because it is one of the things we are considering.

Ms LEY: Are you quite happy with the circumstances as they relate to those in developments of more than 100 premises?

Mr Gadir : We think it is reasonable and logically follows from the overall NBN project that these developments should be catered for and make sure that they do not slip through the cracks of the fibre rollout—so, yes. One thing I wanted to say is that we have had some trouble in getting an idea of how big an issue the Telstra interim solution problem is—whether it is a significant one or a minor one—because Telstra basically has refused to provide us with any figures or any idea of how many people are getting this interim wireless solution, as they call it. We have not had much success with Telstra ourselves. There has been an ABC report that says that tens of thousands of people would be in this situation, although we have heard from other sources that the figure is much lower, but we really do not know. Perhaps this committee will have better luck in finding out from Telstra the extent of this issue. That is something we would be interested in.

Ms LEY: Just for the record, Chair, it is important that we do find out that information in the context of our inquiry.

ACTING CHAIR: In your submission you suggested that premises that are left without a fixed line connection should receive wireless internet that is free of charge or at a discounted price. Can you explain why you are proposing that when those individuals will still be getting a service that, in all other respects, other people pay for?

Ms Corbin : Obviously we are concerned about the fact that they are not going to be getting the same quality broadband as perhaps other people who have it via a fibre connection or an ADSL connection, probably because of the coverage in some instances and possibly also because of congestion on those mobile broadband networks in other instances. We think that, seeing as this is not their first choice, they should be compensated in some way. That is why we have suggested those mechanisms.

Mr Gadir : Just to be clear on that point, you have Telstra giving out wireless phones which are not able to provide an internet service. They are just standard telephones. For those people, they need to rely on buying a dongle or something like that. We were suggesting that it would be fair if they got the dongle at a discounted price since they do not have the capacity to buy an ADSL service with that phone.

ACTING CHAIR: I am glad that other people use the 'dongle' terminology as well! Thank you very much. As there are no other questions, I note that you did take one question on notice—a proposition put to you by Mr Turnbull. I ask that you respond to that by midday on Monday to the secretariat so that will allow us to give consideration to this bill within a timely manner. Thank you very much for your time today. We do appreciate it.