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Wednesday, 25 September 2002
Page: 4858

Senator LUNDY (2:54 PM) —I have a question for Senator Alston, shadow minister for communications. Can the minister confirm—

Government senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT —Order! I believe Senator Lundy did make a mistake and has corrected it.

Senator LUNDY —Can the minister confirm that over one million Australians have been provided with pair gain telephone line connections by Telstra, a cost-cutting means of gaining extra phone connections without investing in new copper lines? Can you confirm that pair gain connections drastically reduce dial-up Internet speed and preclude the provision of broadband Internet via ADSL? How can the minister justify allowing Telstra to charge customers massive phone line rental fee increases when they are short-changing over one million Australians with pair gains?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I may be a shadow of my former self, but I am happy to be on this side of the chamber.

Senator Chris Evans —You shadowy figure!

Senator ALSTON —Well, some of us take it seriously!

The PRESIDENT —Order! Minister, return to the question.

Senator ALSTON —I am sure Senator Lundy well knows that pair gain systems allow two telephone services to be provided over the same copper lines, and of course that is a particular benefit to people who want a second line for voice services, for emergency purposes or generally as a backup arrangement. Of course, when those telephone lines were invented—and we are going back some decades now—it generally was not contemplated that they would be able to provide more than ordinary voice services. So there is always going to be a compromise involved, unless and until you are able to replace the existing network with the latest state-of-the-art technology. I do not think anyone for a moment expects that Telstra ought to be out there building a new fibre-optic network connected to every home in the land simply because Senator Lundy thinks it is a good idea. I think they are much more interested in Telstra balancing its CAPEX on the one hand and keeping prices as low as possible on the other.

Senator Mackay —You've cut the CAPEX!

Senator ALSTON —No, we have not; they have—by 17 per cent, which would be about the worldwide industry average, I would say.

Senator Mackay —Forty per cent cuts!

Senator ALSTON —We do not run their business. I know that that is Labor's policy. I know you would like to do that; that is why you have kept that ministerial power of direction. You would have a field day—until of course the company went into liquidation and two million shareholders lost their money and all the consumers complained bitterly about prices going up. But, in the meantime, you would have a bit of fun. But we do not actually run the company. We do not tell them how their business ought to operate, so we leave them to make commercial decisions. Pair gain technology is a very appropriate commercial decision to take where otherwise people would not able to get a second line. That is what it is about. They are making the best use of the copper telephone network.

We are aware of some issues raised about the way Telstra uses pair gain systems and about the information provided to customers, and I think there is something to be said for some greater level of awareness. But, most times, people are not particularly concerned about how it is delivered; they want to know what will be delivered. As long as people understand what limitations might attach to the provision of a pair gain service then they purchase the service with their eyes open. The ACCC has been investigating the way that Telstra informs customers about its use of pair gain systems, and it has written to Telstra proposing some changes to procedures. Telstra is taking a number of steps to address those issues. All in all, Senator Lundy should also be conscious of the fact that we have a digital data service obligation in place for those who might want to get high-speed access or at least a higher level of access than might be available on a pair system. You can get 64 kilobits, as you well know, wherever you are in Australia through that system.

Senator LUNDY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, can you can confirm that it is currently the case that Telstra's policy is not to reveal to a customer that their line is a pair gain and that Telstra is therefore effectively deceiving them into thinking that they have been given a completely new line? Isn't this a classic case of misleading and deceptive conduct? How do you justify Telstra's massive phone line rental increases when they are still short-changing so many customers, charging more while delivering less?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —That might go down well at branch meetings, Senator Lundy, but in the real world it does not stack up. I do not think Telstra is intentionally or otherwise misleading customers. The ACCC will have a view on this in due course and we will await the outcome.