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Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications
10/03/2011
Role and potential of the National Broadband Network

CHAIR —Welcome. The committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, although I should advise you that the hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. We do not have a written submission from you, so would you like to make some opening statements and then we will have a question and answer session.

Mrs Hall —I will just read what I have here. It is very brief. The North East Tasmania Chamber of Commerce and Industry is an independent, non-profit, non-political organisation that represents the business and industry communities throughout the north-east of Tasmania and is based in Scottsdale. The North East Tasmania Chamber of Commerce stands to provide services that promote the economy and protect the environment, which in turn benefits of social wellbeing of our residents and visitors, making north-east Tasmania a better place to live, work, raise a family and retire.

In this context we fully support the National Broadband Network project in Scottsdale, initially as it became a very significant part of our economy during the installation phase, which Ally has just mentioned, and, of course, into the future as the full potential for opportunities is yet to be recognised. I am really new in this position, so I am a little bit green around the edges and I do not have a lot to say on it. But we certainly see the key benefits as being significant support, as mentioned, for our local economy during installation. It has put our town on the information and technology map and has instigated the attraction of new residents to our town. More importantly, it has the potential to provide greater opportunities for existing and future businesses, professionals and industry and therefore employment.

CHAIR —Thank you. Do you want to add anything, Suzanne?

Mrs Farnell —I just wanted to say, as a small business owner, what the NBN has done for Scottsdale. When the NBN installation commenced last year in Scottsdale it could not have arrived at a better time, with winter approaching, fewer interstate and intrastate visitors and local morale very low. During the installation, many businesses in Scottsdale and Bridport were boosted financially during what was a very, very quiet winter. This is reflected by an ad that was placed in the North-Eastern Advertiser, which I have a copy of here. As a trial pilot guinea pig with teething problems, I am glad and grateful the fibre-optic network came to my town, Scottsdale. We should be privileged to have been chosen as one of the three in Tasmania. At home I am on the basic 15-gig plan and the speed is so much faster than my current ADSL at work and it is $10 a month cheaper.

I agree with the Tasmanian government’s decision for the opt-out program rather than the opt-in program because as a business owner I have recently had to relocate buildings. My previous building had the box on the wall, as you call the connection. I have moved to a building that does not have that, so now I have to go through all the processes of dealing with the landlord to have that box on the wall put in so that I can have the NBN at my business.

The positives to Scottsdale have been, as we have all mentioned, that several families have moved to the area purely because of our fibre-optic network connection and the potential that this network has given to Scottsdale, to businesses, schools, health professionals and mums and dads. Once the network is fully rolled out and the rest of the world joins us, it will just be amazing. May I end by saying how grateful I am that the fibre-optic cable has come to Scottsdale. I look forward to the rest of the world being connected.

CHAIR —Thanks, Suzanne. You both indicated that you are business owners. Can you give us a picture of the other side of your lives beyond this representative role?

Mrs Hall —My husband and I are logging contractors and farmers. We actually own the North-Eastern Advertiser, the local newspaper. I have a hairdressing salon in town as well. I have to admit that, particularly with the timber industry, we are representative of how one thing affects the other in our town. If farming or the timber industry is down, which is another story, or things are a bit tough then I know because I feel it in the salon. As far as the NBN is concerned, our logging business office is not connected to the NBN at this stage. We relocated to a building that did not have the NBN. As Sue has mentioned, because it was an opt-in and not an opt-out situation I guess there are other businesses that did not take it up first off. I do not know why that happened. The building I am in with the salon has three other occupants as well. One is an accountant and I understand they are connected. I do not have a lot of that other information as far as the NBN is concerned. We certainly have not got it. We live out of town on a farm so we do not have it personally either. So I am not a very good advocate to tell you more today.

CHAIR —What about you, Suzanne?

Mrs Farnell —I own and operate Scottsdale Secretariat so obviously having a fast connection would be an advantage in some respects. I have been the secretary of the chamber for a long time. We do have it at home. We went from dial up to NBN.

CHAIR —A quantum jump.

Mrs Farnell —You are not kidding! My husband does a lot of internet banking and his response was, ‘It’s here!’

CHAIR —It is a real experience for you.

Mrs Farnell —Yes. We went from dial up, where you put it on and go and make a cup of coffee while you are waiting for everything to load up, to the fact that it is just there. As I said, we are not on a very fast plan. We are only on the $29.95-per-month plan, which is basically just internet. We did not elect to go to the phone or anything else because we need to sort out which way to go ourselves.

CHAIR —It had not occurred to me that business premises might not take up the initial infrastructure stage. Do you as the chamber have any idea of what might have been driving that? Was it just landlords who did not engage with the issue? What might have been behind those decisions?

Mrs Hall —I am sure it is just that landlords probably did not engage with it initially. I do not know the reasons for that. Listening to Ally speak earlier, she has probably summed that up in that context. From the chamber’s point of view, digressing from that question, we are having a lot of hits at the moment in our community. So it does give us something positive that we can grasp and promote because it is there and it is available and we do not have to rely on big business or others to boost our economy. It may be in a small way and, once word is out there, it may be significant.

CHAIR —Diversifying?

Mrs Hall —Yes, by having the NBN and the attraction that it might bring. By being a guinea pig, there were probably a few issues with footpaths being cut up and things like that, but on the whole the people who did the work were very good to work with and it certainly benefited the town.

Mrs Farnell —I think the apathy of the business owners was because it was sent out in the mail and, as with all things you get in the mail, people walk out of the post office and there is a rubbish bin there and it gets quite full. I personally went to the town meeting and decided that it was a good thing and I pestered my previous landlords to do it. Whether other tenants understood the need for it and what was opening up to them, I do not know. I know I personally did pester and I had two phone calls to say we have lodged it and then I got another phone call to say we have been in touch. Basically that is the reason I am a bit miffed at the moment.

CHAIR —So as the tenants you were actually having to chase the previous landlord to get them to take the decisions to do it.

Mrs Farnell —I cannot just approach the retail sales providers now to say I would like NBN, because I do not have the box on the wall, so to speak. There is a connection right outside. I can see it and I have been told several times it is there, but basically it is not at my desk. I do not know how you get around people doing that.

CHAIR —That is a very interesting perspective.

Mr NEVILLE —Let me ask a question I asked the previous witness first. Why do you think 70 per cent of the community agreed to take the box and yet only 15 per cent have signed up to a provider? Do you think that it was just people taking the precautionary move—if this thing takes off we want to have it on the house and if it does not there is no harm done—or do you think it was the argument that was going on at the time that you could lose your fixed line services when Telstra pulled up their copper? What do you think was the motivation for such a high proportion taking the box and such a low proportion actually taking a high-speed internet service?

Mrs Farnell —We were encouraged at the town meeting to have the box put on the wall for several reasons. One, as you have already mentioned, was that it was free and it would add value to our houses, so there was possibly a high intake because of that. People were concerned about the size of the box, where the box would go, how the box would look on the house, whether it would match the colour of their house and things like that. They had a high intake probably because it was free. The reason people may not have taken it up is that a lot of the older people in Scottsdale—I know you have mentioned that you are from a demographic of older people—are really not techno-savvy and they do not want to be. That is probably why a lot of the older people have not taken it up. As Ally mentioned, maybe a lot of people are locked into Telstra and other service provider contracts and maybe it is because it is so new that it scared away a lot of people. It is such a new thing and, from my perspective of our town, sometimes people do not take to drastic change quickly.

Mr NEVILLE —The thing that surprises me is the disparity.

Mrs Farnell —I agree because I was one of the first to do it.

Mr NEVILLE —You say you are taking the 15-megabit package and you are paying $10 a month less.

Mrs Farnell —I am paying $29.95 for the NBN at home and I am paying $39.95 for ADSL.

Mr NEVILLE —I also take it from what you have said that the decision to take the box onto commercial premises is the decision of the owner of the building, the landlord.

Mrs Farnell —Yes, that is my understanding.

Mr NEVILLE —Can you have it put on if you are a lessee or has it got to go back to the landlord?

Mrs Farnell —It has to go through to the owner of the building, who is the landlord.

Mr NEVILLE —Is there any charge to the landlord?

Mrs Farnell —I am not sure at the moment. I am actually investigating that because I would desperately like the NBN. I am in the process of trying to find out.

Mr SYMON —I want to keep asking questions along the same line. It is quite an interesting point you have raised that as a business you are left behind because of the opt-in versus opt-out. I was going to ask a similar question to what the deputy chair has asked. Do you have any idea of what the cost and the waiting time are now to get connected to the NBN a premises that was not done on the initial rollout?

Mrs Farnell —With the initial rollout, the connections to business were a lot slower than to the house. From what I gather, NBN was designed to do house installations. When it came to businesses, it was a whole new ball game. We are a guinea pig, so they obviously were not ready. Two of us required NBN at my previous location, and they were trying to work out: ‘Do you need two boxes; one per connection? If you have got a huge multistoreyed building, how many boxes do you need?’ It started the thought process of: ‘It’s not just one box, one house; it’s one box for a building of numerous connections.’ I am sure they are learning a lot from that.

Mr SYMON —Obviously, that is one of the ideas of the pilot. If you were to get agreement from your landlord tomorrow to have the box put on, do you have any idea as to what time frame that would now be?

Mrs Farnell —I am assuming it would be if the contractors, who had that contract to put it in, are in our area. I think they have their own timetable and once they have done that then the retail service provider—I would be hoping within a month but I do not know.

Mr SYMON —Going back to the plan you were on—you mentioned the home plan you were on: $29.95 a month, and that was a total of a 15 gigabyte download for the month. Do you know what speed that plan is?

Mrs Farnell —I did not look that up.

Mr SYMON —But a lot faster than what you have had obviously.

Mrs Farnell —Heaps faster. It is just phenomenal speed really. They did the demonstration at the public consultation and it was like, ‘Yeah, right.’ As I said, we are not on really, really fast, so I can imagine that really, really fast would be really fast.

Mr SYMON —I understand. Do you ever use up your download limit now you are on 15 gigabytes a month? Have you come close to that?

Mrs Farnell —I doubt it because I am not very big on doing lots of stuff with music, pictures and things. Even with my ADSL I do not think I ever reached my limit.

Mr SYMON —It is amazing what your kids can do if you give them the opportunity.

Mrs Farnell —Mine have their own connections.

Mr SYMON —That is very good.

Mrs Farnell —And we are glad we do not have to pay their bill.

Mr SYMON —Are they also connected to the NBN?

Mrs Farnell —No. I have a son here in Launceston who is a graphic designer and he is really, really miffed.

Mr SYMON —Does he come out and visit you more often now?

Mrs Farnell —No. When I told him where he was in the stages, he was not really happy.

Mr SYMON —Thank you.

Mrs PRENTICE —Obviously as the chamber of commerce you were delighted with the announcement. Were you active proponents from day one, or did the chamber adopt a more wait-and-see approach?

Mrs Hall —From my point of view, I am quite new to chamber and I was sort of steamrolled into this role. No, I was not actively involved and probably at the time I had a lot of personal issues, which kept me away from it a bit. I think from the members’ point of view it probably was a bit wait and see. As Sue mentioned earlier, we are country people and we sit back, wait and have a look for a while to see what it is all about, especially something that seems a little out there. Sue, you have been involved, haven’t you?

Mrs Farnell —I think we sat on the fence on it. As business owners, we did not realise what it was going to do to our town other than these people were going to come and put things in. When they started work, it was amazing how we all started to talk to each other, and each little business had a little benefit, which boosted that business owner.

Mrs PRENTICE —Between you, you have both got a whole range of different types of industry involvement. What do you think NBN provides that high-speed wireless would not? Obviously, from dial-up to NBN is a massive leap, but wireless is not that far below. Are you big supporters because it was so bad before? Why do you think NBN is better than wireless?

Mrs Hall —I think you do not know how bad it was before until you get something new. My brother is in IT and he comes to play on my computer at home at different times and fix it up. He said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is slow.’ I said, ‘Is it?’ He is used to something quicker. He gets rid of a few bugs and it is quicker again.

Mrs PRENTICE —Where is he from?

Mrs Hall —He is from Scottsdale. As far as chamber members go, we probably do not have as many main street businesses in the chamber as we would probably like. We are a very rural area, so a lot of the people, the large vegetable grower companies and things like that, have access to this because it is in the town. I cannot tell you what it would mean to their businesses. I just know that our daughter works in our office and she is young and quick and gets frustrated with the old system. It is like your mobile phone. You do not realise how slow the old one is until you get the new one.

Mrs PRENTICE —And you have already had the experience that your son says it is so much better than what he is getting.

Mrs Farnell —Yes, and I do not have any experience with wireless because I have just been connected with the cable.

Mr FLETCHER —I am asking you both this in your capacity as business owners and operators. Can you think of things that you are now doing differently in engaging with your customers, for example, because you have NBN or because more customers have an internet connection?

Mrs Hall —I cannot think of anything.

Mrs Farnell —I can, but from an odd angle. I had an old photocopier. The NBN came and they need needed an office and I was their temporary office. That enabled me to update my photocopier. As result of that, I can do far more for my customers through upgrading my photocopier. It was never here hooked up to my computer, whereas now it is. It scans and does PDFs and all those things. I always wanted one but when the NBN and their requirements were way more than I could offer, I jumped in the deep end. From that point of view, it was a benefit. It was not actually the NBN that did that; it was the people installing it who encouraged me, but I will give the NBN credit.

Mr FLETCHER —Amongst your members, how would you say the take-up rate compares to the 15 per cent figure that Mr Neville was citing before—that is, the rate of people who have a live service on the NBN?

Mrs Farnell —We have not gone and asked every business owner that, probably because we are involved in lots of things. It is a good suggestion that we do go to find out who is using it. I would not say half of the people in the Main Street but a fair proportion. You see the boxes on the walls with the wires, so without having to go into buildings you could possibly go and just count them. You do see boxes on walls with wires coming out of them.

Mr FLETCHER —Under your contracts with your internet service providers, do you know what happens to the pricing once they have to start paying a wholesale price to NBN Co.?

Mrs Farnell —I do not know. We are assuming it is going up, which is why we only undertook it on a casual monthly basis, to see how it panned out. But I do believe that people who took up the whole phone and internet package are very happy with their speed and their prices at the moment.

Mr FLETCHER —What is the price they are paying?

Mrs Farnell —I believe some of them are paying about $89.95 a month.

Mr FLETCHER —So that is for telephony plus internet.

Mrs Farnell —I believe so. They are happy with that.

Mr FLETCHER —Both you and the previous witness have talked about a couple of families or people moving into Scottsdale because they are in computer associated businesses. Can you identify any other economic benefits from NBN arriving in Scottsdale, apart from the one you have talked about already, namely the boost to the town from the construction activity?

Mrs Hall —I cannot, but I am not necessarily in tune with who is around. I might do a haircut and ask, ‘So you have just moved to town?’ and they will say, ‘No, I’ve lived here for two years.’ I do not know of any others specifically.

Mr FLETCHER —I would like to understand a bit about what was on offer before NBN arrived. It sounds like the availability of broadband was not great. It was physically pretty patchy. Is it right that there were some parts of town and a lot of areas around town where you just could not get DSL?

Mrs Farnell —I think it was six kilometres from the exchange that you had the ADSL. After that you were on dial up, and that can be quite patchy too.

Mr FLETCHER —Was Telstra the only option? Were there other providers who were in the marketplace?

Mrs Farnell —I personally did not have a Telstra ADSL internet. I have gone with another company. There are others, but a lot of people were locked into Telstra internet. I just elected not to.

Mr FLETCHER —To take your case as an example, Suzanne, is the deal you have got now with your NBN connection cheaper than your previous non-Telstra ADSL service?

Mrs Farnell —At work I am work I am paying $39.95; at home I am paying $29.95. But, as you say, at the moment that is a honeymoon period thing. That may change. I do not know.

Mr FLETCHER —Separating out the factors that drove you to make the decision to take NBN, what weighting would you put on it being cheaper, it being faster and it being something new that was interesting to have a look at?

Mrs Farnell —About 10 on all of those.

Mr FLETCHER —I was thinking out of 100. If you had 100 points to allocate—

Mrs Farnell —You did not say your scale.

Mr FLETCHER —You are quite right; I did not. You would say you attached a similar weighting to all of those factors?

Mrs Farnell —I think so. It is really hard to say what the NBN has done to our town—that is, put us on the map for a lot things. We have the superfast speed but the people we are sending to do not necessarily have that speed. You were talking previously about the medical side of it. It is one thing for our physicians to send it to someone else, but unless they are in Smithton or Midway Point they are going to be receiving it at the speed they normally have. If they are sending it to us, our speed to download would be a lot faster than theirs would be. We are still in the early days so we cannot really say what benefits it has had to our town exactly other than the financial boost. A lot of us are enjoying fast broadband—

Mr NEVILLE —You mean the installation activities?

Mrs Farnell —Yes.

CHAIR —We probably need to keep moving to stay on time. To wrap up, for our advice back to government, is there anything as a chamber you could suggest might be a useful thing that government could do that would assist you? If we want to make sure that businesses are able to access the opportunities that you are talking about, do you have any feedback that you would like to put on the record about what might be done to assist chambers such as yours to better support your own members in that way?

Mrs Farnell —I think just being open and honest about anything that is brought out.

CHAIR —So good information through to chambers?

Mrs Hall —I think language was also mentioned earlier. It certainly does help if information is presented in quality material that is brief, to the point and attractive to read. I think that helps no matter what it is.

CHAIR —One of the things from your own town that I have seen developed is some case studies. Are they a good way to go, do you think, for the membership? I think we have got a case study flyer on the chemist in town. Is that a good format for information, do you think?

Mrs Hall —Yes, I think so, and it gives us an opportunity through chamber to talk to the people that are using it. We know that the chemist has it there, so it is something that we are all aware of, but we really do not knock on the door and ask which other people are using it, to know whether we get feedback from them and how appropriate it is through the chamber to query that or what we do with that information if we get it. So it is something that is probably not on our agenda, to discuss that.

CHAIR —If we made it easier, you could put it on your agenda and give access to that information to a wider range of businesses locally.

Mrs Hall —Yes.

Mrs Farnell —Could I just say that during the installation everything was handled very well. They were very informative as they came down the street to let us know what was happening and the fact that there would be disruptions down the street. As a business owner, I think they did that very well. As a business owner, you knew that your business would be interrupted for a couple of weeks. I have just recently had, at the building next to me, the concrete dug up and the connection put through to the building next door. I watched it. They came and informed me that they would be digging it up and would make as minimal an impact as they could—we have got a step up into our building, so we had to have a bit of timber there while we were waiting for the concrete to dry. Then they came back and said, ‘We’ll be doing this, this and this and we’ll be back on these dates.’ From that point of view, they have always kept us informed, which is essential for a business, because a lot of business owners start to get a little bit protective of the front part of their business and do not like disruption. If the contractors and those types of people can keep that—

CHAIR —That is well worth retaining.

Mrs Farnell —Exactly. I would definitely recommend that.

CHAIR —Great. Thank you for your attendance here today. If you have been asked to provide any additional information, just forward it through to the secretary. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence, to which you can make corrections of grammar and fact. Thank you again for your participation in today’s hearing. It has been most useful to us.

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