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Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Page: 260

Mr RAMSEY (Grey) (13:22): I rise to address the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency Bill 2011 and associated bills. Universal access is of course an essential plank of the delivery of telecommunications services in Australia. By any standards, the National Broadband Network has been a troubled child for this government. While it assures us that it is a raging success, it was born out of the 2007 election commitment of $4.7 billion of taxpayers' money to build a network. When that proved impossible, it morphed very quickly into what is now expected to be a $50 billion project. There are already reported cost blow-outs and a reported lack of customers. To reflect on the words of the member for Flinders, who has just left the chamber, it seems that almost once a month we hear news from around the world of some breakthrough heralding a new wireless technology. The technology in this area is moving the quickest and it seems as though we are in the process of locking ourselves into something that is inflexible. One of the great criticisms of the NBN is its inflexible approach and the stubborn resistance from Minister Conroy to the delivery of the last mile of service by alternative means, because that is after all where the bulk of the enormous cost of the NBN rollout is to be found.

This legislation is about the universal service obligations which, in large part, target the isolated and the disadvantaged in our community. I represent a fair proportion of those people in the electorate of Grey, particularly the isolated. Telecommunications in the modern world has become an essential service like education or health services, and that is as it should be. The universal service obligations are non-negotiable. This legislation is about fulfilling those commitments and its premise is well based. What I am unconvinced about is whether the government understand the challenges and whether or not they are truly committed to comparable services for all.

Much of my electorate, in area at least—probably around 90 per cent of its 904,000 square kilometres—will be left to rely on the old copper networks. Unfortunately, its residents are part of the seven per cent of Australia that will be bypassed by the biggest single civilian budget item in our history. They will not miss the account though: their share of the $50 billion that the government is putting on the slate for their children to pay. They will be responsible for the more than $6,000 a family. This seven per cent of Australia will miss out on the network. Instead, they will receive little improvement on current arrangements. I have grave concerns for those who will not be picked up in the fibre rollout.

Previously in this place, I raised a number of these communities, but they are by no means a definitive list of those in the electorate of Grey who will receive a lesser service. Streaky Bay springs to mind. It is a community with over 1,000 residents, but it appears the government has no intention of running the fibre into Streaky Bay. I could sort of live with that if they would run the fibre as far as the outskirts of Streaky Bay, but they are not going to do that either. The residents of Streaky Bay will not receive a wireless service either; they will connect by satellite. For me, this is a very poor replacement for a good wireless network. Not very far away is Wudinna, which is straddling not one but two fibre optic cables that go to Perth, but they will not be offered the service either. Many other smaller communities, and by no means a definitive list, include towns like Elliston, Tickera, Marion Bay on the Yorke Peninsula, Point Turton and Booleroo all have mobile phone reception of some sort or other at the moment, and could possibly get onto broadband services with an aerial on their roofs.

The monopolistic nature of the NBN prohibits mobile suppliers from marketing wireless services against the established NBN, whatever that might be, even though in many cases this will be the substandard satellite service. It is far from clear how the limitations on competition are likely to impact the delivery of services into these country areas, particularly as we realise mobile phone companies will be progressively rolling out a 4G service across the nation that will be capable of carrying much higher speeds and greater batches of information than the existing 3G. We do not know whether they will be allowed to roll out those networks, or even advertise those networks and tout for business, against satellite services.

Others communities in my electorate have absolutely no mobile phone service—places like Oodnadatta; Blinman; Robertstown, which has a very patchy service; Marree; and any number of farm properties, including my own where I have no mobile service. Those communities and outlying farms will be left to rely on satellite services. Large parts of my electorate rely on the old Telstra radio telephone network, which is a string of microwave towers across station properties. It is 45 to 50 years old. It has no caller ID capacity. It is virtually useless when it comes to delivering broadband services. It was not a bad service in 1975, but the world has moved on and to my knowledge there is no plan to upgrade any of these services. So the question remains: what happens to these communities? The government said in the case of the NBN that satellite would be the answer, but what of voice services? That after all is the universal service commitment. I have had a little bit to do with using satellites over my time. I had a satellite broadband service for some time. In fact, my television is currently delivered by satellite. It works pretty well for television, I have to say, because, while the speeds are not massive, it is a one-way service—the information comes directly in a stream down from the satellite and you can, theoretically at least, run a movie on it. But, when it comes to two-way conversations, there is always a gap. Any of you who have used a satellite phone or watched late-night television when an interview is beamed in from around the world will have noticed that delay. That happens because the satellites are orbiting at 37,000 kilometres above the Earth's surface and it takes around 0.8 of a second for the signal to go up and 0.8 of a second for the signal to come back down again—a 1.6-second delay. That means it is a very scratchy voice service. If the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy has plans in the future to deliver voice services on satellite, I think we have got a real problem.

The answer to this—it would never have gone to all of Australia, though—is to invest more in mobile phone networks. The previous Howard government put aside $2 billion for a telecommunications fund which was to address the shortfalls within regional areas. Unfortunately the government has usurped that money and put it into the NBN process. At this stage, I do not see that the government is committed to increasing those voice services which would be delivered by mobile networks, which would then be capable of delivering better broadband services.

The legislation is supposed to be about delivering a competitive environment for the delivery of these services, but in fact we find that the government has upfront awarded a 20-year contract to Telstra to maintain the copper network. It makes you wonder what kind of competitive environment this provides. It seems more like just part of the bigger deal, part of the arrangements to get Telstra to decommission the bulk of its network so that the government can build a new monopoly—the very opposite of what is happening in every other comparable country in the world.

This arrangement to leave Telstra with a remnant of its former network has all the hallmarks of a nondecision, where the minister realised he had very little idea of what to do with regional and remote Australia, so it has been put into the too-hard basket and the government and the minister just hope that eventually all those consumers may just go away. But it is simply not good enough for us to be pushed to one side. What is needed for regional and remote Australia is a comprehensive, flexible plan which includes providing mobile phone services into towns like Blinman, Robertstown and Ungarra and encourages the operators to provide broadband services in that manner rather than restricting their ability to do so.

The universal service obligations, under this legislation to be administered by a new statutory authority but provided by Telstra, in my mind fit very uncomfortably under the umbrella of the NBN, which was supposed to provide service for all Australians. Telstra, who will no longer own or operate a major network, will have the responsibility for maintaining a museum piece. One has to ask the question: who will have the expertise and equipment to maintain that network once Telstra have moved on to a completely different business focus? There seems to be no planned alternative—or will the government force consumers onto the satellite platform?

I have said on a number of occasions that country consumers get very little out of the NBN. It will be basically the same as what they already have. It is a fast-moving world, and I have businesses come to me daily and say, 'We need to get onto this network.' They are upset that they will be given the opportunity to pay for the network but are going to miss out on what is to be the most expensive, overcapitalised, most anticompetitive broadband project in the world.

This legislation in itself is not bad—the idea that the government remains committed to the universal service obligation is good—but I just wonder whether the government really have their heads around the issues, the difficulties, the challenges, of meeting that obligation in rural and regional Australia.