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Tuesday, 2 December 2008
Page: 33

Senator FISHER (3:52 PM) —As chair of the Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network, I am pleased to have this opportunity to make a few brief comments, together with the tabling of the report, and I understand that some colleagues, fellow members of the committee, will seek to do likewise.

The committee heard from a range of witnesses with a range of concerns about the government’s promise to partner with the private sector to upgrade the existing network to deliver a minimum of 12 megabytes per second to 98 per cent of the Australian population. One of the most compelling concerns about which the committee has heard is that the government thus far has failed to provide guidance to any of the tenderers, potential tenderers or, indeed, the Australian population as to the composition of the 98 per cent national broadband network footprint and, in particular, the extent to which the national broadband network will benefit or not those Australians who are currently under-served or indeed not served at all.

In that respect, we heard evidence from the federal department about the fact that the department have not formulated a method by which to measure the achievement of providing the national broadband network, as promised, to 98 per cent of the population. The department essentially gave evidence that they do not have a formula by which they will measure the achievement of the government’s promise—yet, they attempted to promise that the promise will be met. It was a bit difficult to see how you can achieve a promise if you do not know how you are going to measure that promise. Indeed, through the process, we heard evidence that leads members of the committee very tempted to conclude that the government is conducting this process so that near enough will be good enough in respect of the tenders received. The government is unable to say who will get what, when, for how much and on what basis. It is unable to define the 98 per cent of the population.

The minister has indicated thus far, we think, that he is talking about providing access to 98 per cent of homes and businesses, yet the government and the department have not been able to provide any greater definition around that. Essentially, it was difficult to not conclude at this stage—noting that this report is an interim report of the committee and noting that the committee has until the end of March next year to conclude its inquiries and findings—that the government knows not what its promise will look like until it sees what the tenderers proffer by way of offer. It is difficult to not conclude that near enough will be good enough in respect of providing access to 98 per cent of the Australian population.

A major concern indicated during the inquiry, which is part of the failure to measure this promise, was the lack of clarity and, indeed, the lack of much detail at all about the regulatory environment into which the national broadband network will be taken. Tenderers and would-be tenderers have not been provided with sufficient information by the government about its views of what will be the regulatory environment for the NBN—what will be the rules and regulations. Indeed, one of the witnesses, Mr Michael Malone from iiNet, the country’s third-largest internet service provider, indicated words to the effect that the uncertainty is so great that nobody actually wants to build this and that that was in fact the only thing that the proponents and the stakeholders in the industry could agree upon—no-one actually wants to build this thing. Again, the conclusion we found difficult not to draw from the evidence provided was that those who end up tendering are actually doing it to make sure that no other guy, no other company, gets to build the thing—to keep the others out rather than a genuine desire to build—which is potentially fundamentally undermining the real importance of delivering on this promise to the Australian public.

The committee considered concerns about the time frame for the delivery of the promise and, given the shortcomings in delivering the promise, whether there was a view amongst stakeholders that the time frame for delivering it should be extended. Mr Michael Malone from iiNet essentially said that he would prefer a deferred solution over a stupid solution—and at the moment this is looking like a stupid solution.

As a senator for South Australia, I am particularly concerned to understand what the government is promising in terms of providing access to the underserved or not served at all percentages of the South Australia population. Evidence was provided to the committee by the South Australian government about the fact that almost three-quarters of South Australia’s population reside in metropolitan Adelaide but that South Australia differs from other states in that it has only two regional centres with more than 20,000 people. This clearly has consequences in terms of the ability for a successful tenderer to be able to deliver upgraded national broadband network services to users in those areas. The South Australian government went on to indicate that, in some regional areas in South Australia, the proportion of the population that cannot access broadband at all is as high as 33 per cent. Particularly coming from the South Australian perspective, I am concerned to hear evidence from witnesses and stakeholders about their concerns about the ability of the successful tenderer to deliver this promise—even though we are not quite sure what the promise is and even though it may well end up that the government defines what 98 per cent of the population is to suit the bids received during the tender process rather than on any other empirical and evidence based basis.

Further concerns were highlighted effectively by the minister in question time today, such as his inability to guarantee that, through the national broadband network process, Australian broadband users would not effectively be paying more for the same services they enjoy today. Indeed, during the committee process we heard evidence from some that to some extent it is possible that better services than are provided today could be provided through the process, but they are so much better that no-one will actually want them or need them. And, by the way, they will cost more. The minister today could not guarantee that Australians would not, under the national broadband network, pay more than they currently pay for the same or equivalent services. That is an indictment on the process thus far. The committee looks forward to continuing its considerations so that we can contribute to seeing to it that the Australian government delivers on this promise to Australian broadband users.