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Thursday, 14 November 2002
Page: 6463

Senator LUNDY (8:33 PM) —I also rise this evening to address the issue of Telstra and their telecommunications network in this country. I would like to begin by reflecting on some of the comments by my colleague Senator Cook about the situation in Broome. It is very interesting to hear even more stories about the difficulties that Telstra customers face around the country: the inadequacy of services and the ongoing insistence by Telstra that somehow they think they are up to scratch. It is probably pertinent to read out a response that we got from Telstra through the Senate estimates process. In a question on notice I asked what percentage of Telstra customers are able to access their ADSL service—that is, their broadband service—by state or territory, as a percentage, by numbers, by postcode or by any other suitable measurement that Telstra may have been able to provide through their back-of-house database. Telstra's response was that this information was commercial-in-confidence. They were not prepared to share it, even with the parliament, through the Senate estimates process. I suspect that that is because it is not a very pretty picture. Whilst they are able to tell us that 800 or so exchanges are ADSL enabled, they are not prepared to share the information about what that means for individual customers on a percentage basis. That is part of the problem we have with Telstra and why the concept of further privatisation is so ludicrous in the current environment.

I would like to talk about the complaint I made to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission earlier this year in relation to Telstra's use of pair gains. I suspected that under the Trade Practices Act there may have been some misleading representations to consumers about the impact of pair gain technology and the way Telstra were promoting their broadband services, giving the impression to people around Australia that anyone could get their widely promoted ADSL service. Needless to say, Telstra did not breach the Trade Practices Act in regard to false or misleading representations but it is worth bringing into this place details about what the ACCC found in relation to Telstra's use of pair gains. The ACCC found that pair gain systems can have unfavourable effects on Internet dial-up speeds and limit the ability to get ADSL.

These two issues are at the core of the many thousands of complaints I have received from Telstra customers around the country. When they order a new line, not only are they unaware that they may be put on a pair gain, thereby creating Internet connection speed problems or limiting their ability to get ADSL, but Telstra previously did not provide that information willingly. Indeed the anecdotal stories I have from consumers around the country show that in relation to pair gains Telstra deliberately would obfuscate that information and blame other technology or ISPs—anyone but themselves—for difficulties in connection speed or the inability to get ADSL.

We have good news: following the ACCC's investigation, Telstra will now provide information to consumers about the minimum telephone service that Telstra are now obliged to provide under the USO. They have also said that they will provide information about pair gains and their possible impact on the provision of data service when customers apply for a second line. This is very good news. It should be pointed out that, under the USO, Telstra are only obligated to provide a connection for voice. So anyone who orders a line from Telstra could potentially get a dial-up Internet connection speed as low as 9.6 kilobits per second. I am sure you appreciate, Mr Acting Deputy President, that people purchase a 56-kilobit per second modem so there is an expectation that they will have a data speed way beyond 9.6 kilobits per second.

The ACCC's conclusions support what many people have been telling me, which is that Telstra have been very specifically mean and tricky about the way that they have dealt with their customers and pair gains. They have not been willing to share information and they have been very enthusiastic to try to blame others in the provision of Internet related services for difficulties with their Internet connection speeds. It is also worth reflecting on Telstra's almost loopy response to the ACCC's findings and my comments on the findings. On one particular story Telstra flatly denied my claims, saying that information regarding how services were provided to customers in relation to pair gains was readily available to the public. This is what Telstra said in response, but it is worth going back to some proof in relation to Senate estimates questions on notice when I asked whether, if people suspect they are on pair gains systems and they contact Telstra, Telstra tell them. Telstra responded as follows:

Yes, Telstra consultants are able to advise customers if they are on a pair gain system. In some instances the consultant may not have this information readily available. However, they will ensure that the information is provided to the customer as soon as possible.

That is as big a squib as I have ever heard. Clearly, again based on anecdotal stories told to me by many complainants around the country, Telstra do not tell their customers that they are on pair gains and any concept that they have a process in place to specifically inform people is ludicrous.

Further to this, Telstra defended the use of pair gain technology saying that pair gain technology is quite often the only option for customers who live more than 3.5 kilometres from an exchange, as copper based services diminish at greater distances. I am not an engineer, so perhaps they do over greater distances, but I know that the 3.5 kilometre maximum as used in that context is absolutely ludicrous. So again Telstra have this loopy response vehemently denying any wrongdoing with respect to pair gains and are unable to substantiate their own comments in what is a very shallow defence about their use. I would like to quote from the commission's findings in relation to pair gains:

In light of the complaints to the Commission concerning Telstra's use of `pair gain systems' (`PGS') in the public switched telephone network (`the PSTN') and following discussions between Telstra and the Commission, Telstra has undertaken to increase the level of information it provides to consumers concerning the potential effect that network design decisions have on Internet access.

So here we have a decision from the ACCC requiring Telstra to provide more information. I certainly welcome this decision and look forward to Telstra doing exactly that: being honest with their customers and providing up-front information. The ACCC response goes on to say, under the title `Effect of a PGS':

Although PGS do not affect the quality of voice services, they can have unfavourable effects on Internet dial-up speeds and also limit the ability to get ADSL.

These were precisely the complaints that I took to the ACCC. The response continues:

Under the Government's Universal Service Obligation (`USO') regime a `standard telephone service' only needs to provide a quality `voice' service. The only mandated data speed across a standard telephone service is a minuscule 2400 bits per second, which is the speed necessary for teletypewriters and faxes. Transmission speeds over 2400 bps are regarded by the Government and Telstra as a bonus for consumers.

Let me tell all the Internet users in Australia that if they are getting more than a 2.4-kilobit per second Internet connection speed that is a bonus as far as the government and Telstra are concerned because they really are only required to provide that amount. I think this comes as quite a shock, particularly to those customers who have been using their copper line for an Internet connection and who may have been getting a reasonable speed, say 28.8 kilobits per second, and find that someone down the road has actually been put on a pair gain which subsequently has a detrimental effect on their speed as well. Those people would be well advised to understand that Telstra's pitiful level of service is supported by the government. There is nothing in sight besides a pathetic attempt to provide 19.2 kilobits per second. (Time expired)