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Tuesday, 5 July 2011
Page: 7632


Mr SLIPPER (FisherDeputy Speaker) (18:09): The new division in our society is actually between information rich and information poor. Historically, it has been between those who are more wealthy and those who are less wealthy, but in 2011 nobody argues the need for people right around the country, regardless of their socioeconomic position, to be able to communicate and to access the modern technologies which are now available. This is why I am very pleased to speak tonight on the Telecommunications Legislation Amend­ment (Fibre Deployment) Bill 2011. I refer to the report of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network entitled An Advisory Report on the Telecom­munications Legislation Amendment (Fibre Deployment) Bill 2011and in particular to the dissenting report lodged by members of the opposition. I commend the contents of that report to all honourable members as being a very reasoned and sound response to a challenging problem confronting our community.

The rollout of the National Broadband Network should include the connection to the network of some 1.9 million greenfield sites by the year 2020. It is pretty clear that this is the obvious time to conduct installation works to sites as they are devel­oped, as it is cost effective and the works are not restricted by pre-existing infrastructure. It is clearly the sensible thing to do and no reasonable person would oppose this appro­ach.

The cost of installing fibre optic cabling during development provides the best opportunity to install the latest technology from the word go at a reasonable cost. Admittedly, it is technology that is a little more costly initially than the traditional copper based technology, but there is consensus that in the longer term it will deliver an improved service and so most people would agree that the initial outlay is worth it. The extra costs upfront are outweighed by the additional and improved capacities of fibre over its lifetime.

This reality, however, does not diminish the Liberal National Party's continued firm belief that the NBN is a shonky government policy and is an initiative that is overpriced, provides an unacceptable burden to the Australian taxpayer and will create a communications monopoly that disadv­antages rival commercial internet operators. I think that in 2011 we have moved beyond the situation where we had a monopoly of telecommunications, originally in the hands of the Postmaster-General's Department, then Telecom Australia and then Telstra. Happily, in more recent times, competition has brought in a range of other providers and that has benefited the Australian taxpayer. I am sure that most members, regardless of their political allegiance, would agree that competition is a good thing and that no-one would want to go back to the bad old days.

In fact, I was talking to someone who mentioned to me that years ago when the PMG was going to install a telephone the linesman would not put the connection close to the floor because some outdated union regulation said that 30 years down the track the then 20-year-old linesman might develop a back problem. So they had these hideous connections highly visible. With improved commercialisation, initially of Telecom Australia and then Telstra and then compe­tition, those bad situations no longer occur. But I do believe that what is proposed in this bill could well bring about a return to a communications monopoly or near mono­poly that will disadvantage rival commercial internet operators. While that of itself is undesirable, what is even more undesirable is that a lack of competition will mean that in the long term the Australian taxpayer will pay more.

This bill will enforce developers to install fibre optic at new developments at greenfield sites and recognises the value and benefits of fibre optic technology. The provisions include that, in those developments where fixed lines are installed, the lines must be optical fibre lines. When fixed line facilities are installed in a development, those facilities must be fibre ready. To sell or lease land or buildings in new facilities unless fibre optic facilities have already been installed will be prohibited. Obviously, while civil penalties may apply to the corporation that sells the land or building without fibre optics, the sale would still stand. Carriers are able to access fixed line facilities that are owned by noncarriers to ensure that fibre can be rolled out using these existing facilities. This access would be at commercially negotiated rates.

The bill exempts businesses from these provisions in cases where contracts for land sales or leases have been signed before the bill comes into effect. That is a sensible provision because in 2011 no-one supports retrospectivity. I think it is vital to recognise that, when the law of Australia says a certain thing on a certain day and people act on the basis of that law as it then exists, it is inappropriate to change the law as at a certain date but backdate the operation of that law to make illegal an action which was within the law when it was taken. I think that makes a lot of common sense and most people in the country would agree.

Many of the provisions in the bill will in the long term result in a multitude of fibre-ready commercial facilities around Australia. That is good in principle for business. It is good to enable our businesses to compete and it is important to recognise that the world is a marketplace today, that we are not a closed society and that the proper ability to communicate on the part of businesses will assist them to compete in the world community. With those facilities—that is, the multitude of fibre-ready commercial facilities—will come the convenience of faster internet services that, quite naturally, will boost efficiencies and ultimately business success and profitability.

In case you think that I have unadulterated admiration for this particular bill, it is important to recognise that while it does have some positives it also has some negatives. The honourable member for Wentworth and other members of the Liberal-National Party opposition have made it very clear what those defects are. The provisions will mean additional initial cost for business and the entire NBN situation is messy and potentially damaging for some carriers involved in fibre-optic installation.

It is understood that the NBN will roll out its optical fibre at no charge to the end user, with costs to be recouped over time through service provision. While this is an ideal situation for the NBN, it places at great disadvantage those other commercial installers and operators who are not in the same position to forgo costs at the time of installation due to their understandable need for regular income to sustain their businesses. The financial position of the NBN, obviously backed by the government, to be able to install its hardware at no initial cost to the client is a condition that competitors, who must instead negotiate installation costs with the developers, would find impossible.

Currently, the greenfields fibre-optic market is very competitive, with some 400,000 of the 909,000 cable and fibre installations in Australia having been installed by smaller operators, yet the government argues that the NBN will help to end the dominance of Telstra, which has something like 82 per cent of the fixed phone line market in Australia and some 65 per cent of copper digital lines. However, the ability of the NBN to provide installations at no upfront cost will not only have an impact on Telstra but will also impact upon those smaller operators, which have so far conducted some 44 per cent of installations. There is a very high likelihood that the NBN will become the dominant force with a solid monopoly in the fibre-optic sector, effect­ively replacing a commercially competitive market with one dominated by a government funded and government controlled oper­ator—in other words, going back to the situation that existed before, where there was something approaching a monopoly in telecommunications. Ultimately, a monopoly will mean higher costs and lower services. This of course will be to the detriment of the Australian taxpayer.

To be fair to the government, it does claim that there will be room, or there should be room, for competing providers. These concerns are addressed in amendments being proposed by the Liberal-National Party opposition. These amendments propose that the NBN pay installation costs where a compliant fibre network is installed in a fibre-ready facility. In other cases, the amendments propose that the NBN purchase the completed infrastructure to ensure the installers get a return for their efforts and are not disadvantaged by their need for a prompt return for their efforts.

The bill also supports the rollout of the National Broadband Network and other superfast telecommunications networks in all new developments, broadacre estates, urban infill and urban renewal projects. In supporting the bill with the amendments moved by the opposition, I reiterate that it is really important that Australia should have a world-class ability to communicate. We should have fast internet and the opposition is not arguing with the government's proposal that there should be faster internet. However, I think this bill, while it does contain positives, also contains some defects and it would be enormously improved were the government to accept the proposals being put forward by the honourable member for Wentworth. I therefore indicate my general support for the bill and its aims but also my very strong support for the amendments being moved by the honourable member for Wentworth and supported so strongly by members of the Liberal-National Party opposition.