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Thursday, 14 November 2002
Page: 6456

Senator COOK (8:03 PM) —Like some earlier speakers, I also rise to talk about telecommunications policy for our regions. One of the critical issues facing Australia is the strength and vitality of our regions. This is critical not just for the regions as there are some important national implications relating, for example, to the manner in which we manage the environment of our vast land mass, how we best exploit our natural mineral resources, and what our strategic interests are in defence, coastal surveillance and quarantine matters. So how our population is distributed across our nation is an important element of national public policy as well as being of critical social and economic importance to regional Australians right across this enormous land, particularly those in my own state of Western Australia. Strong and vibrant regions are important to attract people, especially families, and businesses, and one of the many elements of this in this modern information age is of course adequate telecommunications. This is the issue I want to speak about tonight.

Last week the Estens inquiry into regional telecommunications reported to the government. It was the whitewash that the government wanted. It was always going to be so, stacked as it was with National Party mates. The Estens inquiry gave the government the green light to proceed to the full sale of Telstra, despite the fact that most of the 580 submissions had grave reservations. But even this deeply flawed document could not escape the fact that telecommunications in regional Australia are a picture of patchy and inadequate mobile phone services, low Internet data speeds, constant Internet drop-outs and inadequate consumer protection. The Western Australian government, in its very well researched submission to Estens, points to a whole litany of problems in regional WA. For example, it quotes Mr Matt Summors, a resident of Binningup—population 1,200 and just 30 kilometres from Bunbury, a city of 25,000—who says that mobile phone service in his area is virtually non-existent:

“Hardly the bush,” Mr Summors says. “I went to the Telstra office in Bunbury and asked to be connected to their broadband system. Their reply? Sorry, not possible—the lines in that area are not able to carry broadband.”

So there is no broadband at Binningup, which has 1,200 people. What about our biggest regional city in Western Australia, Kalgoorlie-Boulder, the site of my electorate office and one of our state's economic powerhouses? If Telstra were dinkum about providing adequate services in regional Australia, you might think broadband would be available within the city limits. Well, think again. Whilst it is available within three kilometres of the central business districts, this does not extend to the major industrial area of West Kalgoorlie, where most of the engineering and transport firms that are so critical to providing services to the mining industry are located, the firms that are in fact the major employers in Kalgoorlie. West Kalgoorlie is the area that is home to a lot of Kalgoorlie small businesses. If you want a fast Internet connection, you need a massively expensive satellite system just a few kilometres down the road from the centre of Australia's biggest outback city.

From the 1996 census to the 2001 census the fastest growing area in Western Australia was Broome, the population of which grew by 35 per cent to 18,500. A constituent from Broome sought the assistance of my office yesterday to get access to Telstra's broadband services this week. He had been told by Telstra, extraordinarily, that only the old exchange in the old part of the town was broadband capable, not the new exchange servicing the newer sections of Broome, and that there were no plans to rectify the problem in this area as it was only `mostly residential'. Almost all this massive growth in Broome is from tourism and virtually all the resorts are at Cable Beach in the newer part of Broome, so this is a totally inadequate answer and a totally inadequate service.

My office, like the offices of many senators, has an 1800 number to enable free phone access for remote constituents. However, some years ago it emerged that constituents in many communities close to the Western Australian-Northern Territory border could not access it because Telstra, for reasons of their own convenience, serviced it from the Northern Territory and gave it a Northern Territory phone number. Because my 1800 number is only available to my constituents, who by definition are all in Western Australia, my constituents with Northern Territory phone numbers could not access it. Nor could they access the myriad WA state government agencies through their 1800 numbers, 1300 numbers or 13 numbers.

I must say that the staff at Telstra Country Wide in Kalgoorlie are most helpful and have been so over a long period in resolving this matter but there are two points to be made about this. The first point is that this situation should never have occurred in the first place. Had Telstra been more concerned about the needs of their customers than their own convenience and their bottom line, the necessary architecture would have been built into the system to allow citizens in regional areas to access the free call or local call cost long-distance services available to all other residents of the state. The second point goes to the serious concern that Telstra have never adequately addressed—that the Telstra Country Wide service will be withdrawn once Telstra are fully privatised. Telstra Country Wide has been a particularly positive initiative to address telecommunications problems on the ground in regional and remote areas. Its staff are to be commended for their highly professional service but the strongest commitment needs to be made to its continuation for Australians in regional and especially remote areas.

A recurring theme in many of the submissions received by the Estens inquiry was the question of Internet connection speeds. I spoke earlier of the difficulty accessing the existing broadband system but the problems are far greater with the dial-up system. The access speed Telstra uses as its de facto standard is 28.8 kilobits per second but a recent survey by the Great Southern Area Consultative Committee found that less than 30 per cent of Internet users in its area, in the Albany area of Western Australia and the hinterland extending a few hundred kilometres north, could access the Internet at that speed or faster. This is not exactly remote Western Australia. It is one of the most closely settled rural areas of our state and includes the city of Albany and some quite large towns. If this is the best Telstra can do in comparatively easy circumstances, God help us in remote areas if it becomes fully privatised.

The customer service guarantee provides for a minimum Internet access speed of 19.2 kilobits. This is totally inadequate and therefore a meaningless standard, as it simply does not allow for an effective or even workable use of the Internet. The Western Australian government's submission to the Estens inquiry stated:

A woman living in Dowerin, one and a half hours' drive from Perth, enrolled in an online course to enable her to support the network at her place of employment. The Internet connection was so slow that she could not access the course as the connection timed-out before the web pages could be loaded.

Again, that is not a remote location by any means and we simply have to do better. Regional mobile phone coverage is another issue raised over and over again in the submissions to the Estens inquiry. As one farmer told my office recently:

Farming these days is a highly competitive business and any such business needs the best tools available to it. Like most other businessmen in the western world, I need a mobile phone service that works. If a road-train load of my grain is held up at the bin with a threat to be downgraded for some reason, I need to know about that so I can make an on-the-spot decision as to what to do with that load—get it cleaned or dried or shandy it with some other grain or whatever. That load will have 50 ton of grain on it that may suffer a dockage of $20 a ton. That's $1,000. I send 100 or more such loads to the bin in an average harvest, so this is an important business matter for me. My competitors are farmers mostly in places like Europe and North America where there is much better mobile phone coverage so this is an issue of international competitiveness for me.

And so it is. We should be doing whatever we can to improve the international competitiveness of our farmers and of our regions generally. There are very good national reasons, as I said earlier, for having strong, economically and socially vibrant regions in Australia. That means having the best possible infrastructure and these days that very much includes telecommunications infrastructure.

The sale of Telstra does nothing to improve that infrastructure; indeed it greatly hinders it. There are no guarantees that regional services will even be maintained, let alone improved, and there are no mechanisms to ensure that the telecommunications gulf between city and country does not widen in the future. I strongly support Labor's continuing opposition to the further sale of Telstra. I point out that people resident in regional and particularly remote areas of Western Australia still continue to suffer with inferior telecommunications services despite the efforts the government claim it has made to remedy the problem. If the Estens report is supposed to hold up a mirror to what is available then it is a cracked mirror indeed.