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Thursday, 22 September 2011
Page: 11287

Mr BRUCE SCOTT (MaranoaSecond Deputy Speaker) (11:02): Mr Deputy Speaker, I will bear your comments in mind when I am occupying the chair. It is a very good principle. I notice that the member for Petrie, the deputy chair of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network, is leaving the chamber. That is a disappointment because she raised issues that I have to confront in a rural and remote electorate extending from just west of Brisbane all the way to the Northern Territory border. She spoke about the benefits of the NBN for e-health, the Royal Flying Doctor Service and distance education. I will be with those rural and remote communities this time next week looking at these very issues, including the issue of the rollout of digital television—which is an absolute disgrace. This government has ignored the wishes and concerns of those communities in remote parts of Australia—the small communities that are being offered a satellite-only service when they have had analog rebroadcast for years and years. It is the rebroadcast that they want, not satellite dishes on private homes. There is a very real issue here that we cannot get the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy to listen to. I hope he will listen to these concerns at the local government conference which will be held on the Gold Coast in two weeks time. I know there is a real worry in those remote communities that this government is not listening to their concerns, whether they be concerns about the digital television rollout or the fibre optic high-speed internet rollout.

I am not opposed to high-speed internet. I have been driving this agenda on our side of the House almost since I came here. I know the benefits of communication—it is a vital link with trade, education opportunities and health. What we are opposed to is the model and the lack of transparency being proposed under the NBN. We heard the member for Cowper talk very eloquently about this. We want answers. After all, there is a commitment to spend something like $50 billion in this major infrastructure project. Surely there should be transparency and the community and the people—the taxpayers of Australia, the shareholders of NBN Co.—should be entitled to know about some of the rollout proposals and about the take-up that is occurring as the program is rolled out. We acknowledge it is a massive investment, but it should at least be subject to a cost-benefit analysis and transparency so that the taxpayers of Australia can understand and judge for themselves whether this is a good business model or a flawed business model. Any business would be doing due diligence or a feasibility study in relation to a proposition so big—or not even as big as this. Any business, small or large, before they make that investment would be doing due diligence as to whether there is an economic model that stacks up.

The member for Petrie, the deputy chair of this committee, spoke in glowing terms about this rollout into rural and regional Australia. Can I just say that I represent a rural electorate. I hope that the members from the regions of Melbourne and Sydney, with their city-centric thinking, might just listen for a moment. I would invite them to come out and talk to these communities in remote parts of Australia and live the life for a little while. They might then have an understanding of what people like me are talking about, because we understand the challenges and we also understand the importance of high-speed internet for those people, particularly in remote parts of Australia. Unlike this model from the government, we said that under our plan we would be building the network from the inside of Australia to the outside. But what this government is doing is rolling it out in some key marginal seats, including the seats of the Independents who gave this government government. It is very cosy. It is a bit like the Regional Development grants that have recently been rolled out. What a disgrace that was.

Anyway, I go back to the point that next week I will be out with these communities in far western Queensland, including one large pastoral property where the children have access to their education source through the School of Distance Education. I will be going to towns where the Royal Flying Doctor Service will be conducting clinics, which they do out of Charleville. Every day they are available, 24 hours a day.

Only last month I was out in Birdsville in the far west of my electorate with the Leader of the Opposition. There we sat down at the Birdsville Clinic with the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the clinic nurses. They explained to us that, whilst they have a fortnightly clinic at Birdsville, they are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they are only two hours away by aircraft if they get the call from the clinic in Birdsville. But it is not just Birdsville; it could be other communities out in the far west of my electorate and other parts of Australia: Bedourie, Windorah, Jundah, Eromanga, Thargomindah and all of those remote communities, including some of the remote pastoral stations where the Royal Flying Doctor Service are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, whenever they get the call.

They explained to us the benefits of e-health. I will preface my remarks by saying that Birdsville and that far western part of my electorate are connected by radio links to the mainframe, if I could put it that way. The mainframe is the optic fibre network that extends across this nation; the Telstra legacy optic fibre interconnects between communities. These communities out there are connected by a radio signal—a microwave link. The clinic nurse said that, if they get a situation where they have a person who presents at the clinic and they take an X-ray of the situation that they are concerned about, they will transmit it to the Royal Flying Doctor Service or a medical practice far to the east, in a capital city or a big regional town. But the problem is that they are transmitting that signal through a single-channel radio microwave link over about 800 kilometres—600 kilometres in some cases—to the nearest optic fibre cable, and then it is transmitted either to the Royal Flying Doctor Service base in Charleville or to a regional centre further east with a major medical practice. The signal that they send now is not high resolution because it is going through a radio signal. If they had optic-fibre cable connections in that far western part of my electorate they would be able to transfer a high-resolution image to the Royal Flying Doctor Service in Charleville, and they might refer it on to Brisbane for another opinion. But they are unable to send a high-resolution image now because, as I said, they are not connected to the optic-fibre cable main trunk route at all. They are connected by microwave link.

They said that if there is any doubt they call the Royal Flying Doctor Service, as you would imagine they would, so the doctor will be there and they will pick up that patient and they will evacuate them to Charleville to do an X-ray and then transmit it, if necessary, via optic-fibre cable to a capital city or regional centre if they are seeking a second opinion. It would be a high-resolution image. Every retrieval out of Birdsville costs $8,000. It may be that it is just a retrieval to take an X-ray to get a high-resolution image for a second opinion on a situation that they are dealing with. If that evacuation were not necessary—because they had that optic-fibre cable connection—they could deal with it on the spot and make a decision and it could well save having an $8,000 retrieval just to have an X-ray done and return the patient to Birdsville if all is clear. That is an example of the cost of providing a medical service in some remote communities and the problem here is they are not connected by optic-fibre cable to the main optic-fibre network across this nation.

The communities out in the far west of my electorate that come to my mind immediately—the Diamantina, Barcoo and Quilpie shires—have said that they would put money towards an optic-fibre cable to connect their towns to the main optic fibre line. They are prepared to put up $3 million or $4 million of their ratepayers' money towards that and what they require from this government, in a partnership arrangement which our policy would have allowed and does allow, is about $15 million to $20 million and then they would be connected to the main optic fibre line. That is a real partnership and that is the sort of investment that could happen under our policy, but we do not see it coming forward under this government's policy.

You might ask, Mr Deputy Speaker, how many evacuations would a town like Birdsville have? The week before I was there and they had three evacuations at $8,000 per evacuation. The day that I was there, leading up to the Birdsville Outback racing festival and the Birdsville races, there were over 6,000 people in town. The population of Birdsville and the Diamantina shire is about 300 people but about 30,000 tourists go through there every year. So we are not dealing with a population of 300; we can often be dealing with 4,000 or 5,000 people at any one time. I said to the Royal Flying Doctor Service clinic staff there, 'Do you get many people travelling through who need medical attention?' and was told, 'Every day.' It might be seniors and older people in their Winnebagos doing their big trip around Australia and needing prescription drugs, or maybe just a health check. What would be of great benefit to those communities is to have the back-up of an optic-fibre cable connection into the main line to support the decisions of the practitioner nurses and the clinic nurses that are there throughout the day and are available throughout the night.

The other concern I want to raise relates to those small communities of less than 500. As I understand it, they are now connected by clear-voice signal, a telephone, via copper wire. I understand it is the intention, should the shareholders of Telstra approve the arrangement, that the copper wire will be owned by NBN Co. NBN Co.'s role in those small communities is not to roll out optic-fibre cable, as we heard from the deputy chair today, but to provide a voice service to those communities by satellite. What a backward step! You have a viable copper wire system in some of those small communities and that is going to be trashed and replaced by satellite for a clear-voice signal. I have used a clear-voice signal via satellite and I can assure you there is always a latency in the voice and you almost have to say 'over and out'. Maybe satellite technology will improve over time, but I urge the government not to scrap the copper wire in those communities.

I also want to say something on the optic fibre cable rollout to the premises. I heard the deputy chair of the committee say that copper wire can be destroyed. Well, a lot of that copper wire has been out there for more than a hundred years and it still has life in it. I noticed that the member for Chifley said: 'Optic fibre cable won't be affected by floods; the only disconnect would be if it were cut.' If you have a power failure in your area and you are connected by optic fibre cable, you will be off the air unless you have power and are able to power up the signal that is coming via the optic fibre cable, because optic fibre—glass, in other words—does not carry current; copper does. That is why, when people are connected to the optic fibre cable only, they will need a battery backup for when the power goes down. They will need to have batteries and make sure that they remain fully charged. So this notion that optic fibre cable cannot be destroyed and will not go down is wrong. You get blackouts. And what happens in big floods when the power is cut? We have seen massive floods recently. If you lose your power under an optic-fibre-only connection to your home, you will not have a connection—unless you have a battery backup—because you are going to trash the copper wire.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr S Sidebottom ): No, I am not.

Mr BRUCE SCOTT: No, you are not; I respect you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and I respect your intervention.

The coalition has a very real plan not only to address these issues in remote Australia and build partnerships with third parties, such as the one I have described in western Queensland with the Diamantina and Barcoo shires, to roll out optic fibre cable—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Member for Melbourne Ports: do you wish to raise a point of order or make an intervention?

Mr Danby: An intervention.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Will the honourable member speaking allow a question?

Mr BRUCE SCOTT: Yes, I will.

Mr Danby: When the earthquake in Christchurch happened, and when there have been other natural disasters of that magnitude around the world, were copper wire and telephonic communications interrupted as well?

Mr BRUCE SCOTT: I cannot answer that directly in relation to Christchurch. But I have been to Openreach in London, which is British Telecom's division responsible for the rollout of broadband, if I can put it that way, in the UK, and they showed me that you clearly need a battery backup to power your system if you are connected only to optic fibre cable. So you need a separate power source on the premises to make sure that you remain connected, regardless of what might happen out in the community.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Thank you, Member for Maranoa, for your contribution.