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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 588

Ms ROWLAND (11:30 AM) —I move:

That this House:

(1)   notes the:

(a)   19 September 2010 Declaration by the members of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development to world leaders attending the 2010 Millennium Development Goals Summit at the United Nations on the benefits of broadband as the transformational technology for employment generation, productivity growth and the long term economic competitiveness;

(b)   OECD report of December 2009 which makes the case for investment in a competitive, open access national fibre network rollout based on benefits to four key sectors of the economy: electricity, health, transportation and education;

(c)   positive externalities of broadband in providing increased opportunities to access Australian health and education services, and the linkages between disparities in broadband access and social disadvantage; and

(d)   technical limitations of non fibre approaches to national broadband development, particularly in respect of video and other ‘real time’ applications used to deliver health and education services; and

(2)   recognises the merits of the development of universal broadband access in Australia with an emphasis on options for niche broadband delivered content and applications to provide immediate benefits to areas and groups of identifiable need.

I have moved this motion because I have a fundamental belief in the transformational power of information technology to improve the lives of individuals and their societies. It is a belief forged through legal and regulatory experience and my responsiveness to the needs of the communities I represent. I believe this parliament has a responsibility to our society and its future generations to base its deliberations about broadband development in Australia on a well-informed, sound, factual policy basis. For these reasons I believe it is imperative that Australia firstly place itself in the global policy context. In September last year the members of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development addressed a declaration to the world leaders attending the 2010 Millennium Development Goals Summit at the United Nations Headquarters which called upon them to embrace a common goal of broadband inclusion for all. It states in part:

We believe that broadband inclusion for all will represent a momentous economic and social change commensurate with the very problems that the MDGs aim to solve and that it will be a game-changer in addressing rising healthcare costs, delivering digital education for all and mitigating the effects of climate change. Already we see the transformational progress which digital inclusion offers to youth, women, the elderly and people with mental and physical disabilities in rich and poor countries alike.

Just as I have espoused in this place the merits of the virtuous cycle of education, the Broadband Commission advocates a virtuous cycle for digital development that interlinks technology, infrastructure, policy, innovation, people, government, content and applications. Its advocacy on infrastructure is instructive. Whilst a variety of technologies—such as satellite, wireless and microwave—will undoubtedly be employed, achieving a technology-neutral approach, these technologies require a physical backbone in order to function. Accordingly, the Broadband Commission states unequivocally:

A high-capacity fibre optic packet transport backbone is the fundamental backbone infrastructure that countries need to deploy to support the growth in broadband services.

There are two critical points to note here. Firstly, I reiterate my comments made here on several occasions that Australia’s National Broadband Network is the reality of these internationally irrefutable goals and the steps necessary to implement them. We are creating a national piece of utility infrastructure, regulated as a utility, in the public interest. Secondly, those who are opposed to the NBN are fond of asserting that this government has picked a fixed technology and ignored other broadband solutions such as wireless. This is a nonsense. The NBN is not just about fixed networks; to the contrary, the NBN augments all other technologies because it is a technology-neutral backbone. The NBN architecture and infrastructure is the only option which represents unlimited technological diversity and, because nothing is faster than the speed of light—which carries the electromagnetic energy that comprises a communication—it alone has capacity that cannot be achieved by anything else in the network layer of the stack. It is little wonder then that some of the most enthusiastic backers of the NBN are in fact our mobile operators.

Here in Australia we are putting the theory of broadband inclusiveness into action and we can be confident that we are on the right path. But do not just take it from me. Take the endorsement of Eric Schmidt, the former CEO and now executive chairman of Google, who recently said at the Mobile World Congress:

Let me start by saying that Australia is leading the world in understanding the importance of fibre. Your new Prime Minister, as part of her campaign and now as part of her prime ministership, has announced …93 per cent of Australians …will have gigabit or equivalent service using fibre and the other seven per cent will be handled through wireless services of the nature of LTE. This is leadership, and again from Australia, which I think is wonderful.

This motion also notes the analysis by the OECD of the need for investment in open access national fibre networks in order to deliver benefits in electricity, health, transportation and education, which together are estimated to comprise a quarter of a country’s GDP. The quality of the network, its bandwidth and scalability, is a first-principle issue that is determinative of whether these benefits can be realised. Again, the real-time nature of these services and applications requires bandwidth that can only be achieved by a fibre backbone.

While some in this place have sought to argue that the laws of economics demand we instead revisit wireless solutions, I say this: the laws of economics may be malleable but the laws of physics are not. Radio communications spectrum is a shared resource, which means that practical wireless speeds are incapable of achieving the outcomes of fibre. And, like all attempts to quantify a cost-benefit analysis of public investment in new high-speed fibre networks, the OECD emphasises that, contrary to what some in this place would have us believe, the imperative for direct government investment is not novel. It states:

Policy makers understand the importance of these spillovers and government leaders have committed to promoting the extension and upgrade of broadband networks to benefit from these spillover effects. In the OECD’s Seoul Declaration for the Future of the Internet Economy, ministers agreed to ensure broadband networks attain the greatest practical national coverage and to stimulate investment and competition in the development of high capacity information and communication infrastructures ... The recent economic crisis and emphasis on fiscal stimulus have opened the possibility of governments directing investment to building broadband networks. These types of interventions are not new because telecommunications markets have faced a similar challenge before with ensuring a national/universal rollout of PSTN and mobile networks.

Those rural and regional members in this place who want to ensure that their constituents and their local economies are not deprived of these benefits, and those who, like myself, represent some areas of outer-metropolitan Sydney where accessible and affordable broadband is non-existent, are united in our vindication by the OECD’s analysis.

Finally, the linkages between disparities in access and social disadvantage are well documented by the broadband commission and the OECD, as well as even the most rudimentary analysis of broadband accessibility and postcode. I have placed such evidence before this place on numerous occasions; today I draw on my own analysis I delivered in my presentation to the 2009 Communications Policy and Research Forum, which is widely regarded as one of the leading fora in communications and media thinking in this country. The question I posed there was, ‘Universal broadband in an NBN nation: what’s the objective?’ And my thesis identified a potential model for addressing the disparities in broadband access in Australia and the linkages to social disadvantage. My conclusion was that the objective—the answer to my question—needs to be to harness broadband as a mechanism to break cycles of educational, employment and other disadvantage. A year later, I am comforted by the goals of the broadband commission, which are aimed at the same.

Moreover, I am looking forward to the broadband debate moving beyond where it has stagnated in the minds of some in this place—beyond the tactics of delay, beyond attempts to argue economics over physics, and beyond a refusal to admit that the private sector alone will not pick up the mantle to make a truly national high-speed broadband network a reality in this country.

I want this debate to proceed—this is the reason I have raised this motion—to a situation where we work in the common interest of those in our society who stand to benefit from the transformational change of the NBN.

I want the debate to move to the competition for opportunities to utilise the NBN from the ground up—opportunities such as running educational access pilots in Mt Druitt; exporting our educational programs to China from regional universities such as Armidale; having telecommuting hubs on the Central Coast of NSW; or having an elderly person in Riverstone, who may be on the verge of entering permanent assisted care, spend an extra year in her own home because her condition could be remotely diagnosed and treated.

In resolving to note the items in this motion we also acknowledge the logic of the NBN as having a sound, globally endorsed policy basis, which is coming to fruition. Our next step as representatives in this place is to ensure that those who matter—the people we represent—are, and remain, at the forefront of our deliberations. I commend the motion to the House.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—Is the motion seconded?