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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 7910

Senator LUNDY (3:05 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (Senator Alston) to questions without notice asked by Senators Lundy, Mackay and Eggleston today relating to Telstra.

In doing so, I would like to acknowledge the extremely gratuitous response from the minister in relation to complaints raised by constituents to my office, particularly about ADSL. My office received a phone call from a constituent, a small business owner, who claimed that he had been on ADSL for eight months and had never received a bill. He assumed that it had been bundled into his Telstra bill like his mobile fixed line and BigPond accounts had been. Telstra contacted him and said that he had an amount of $500 owing on his ADSL account and that he had only two months to pay it. He replied that he thought he had been paying it with a bundled Telstra account and was told ADSL was billed separately. When he pointed out that he had never received a separate ADSL bill, he was told that there had been some errors in the ADSL billing process and that some people had not been billed.

The reason I asked the minister how many people were affected by this error was that a story on alleges that Telstra had mistakenly been undercharging around 60,000 ADSL customers after its usage metre underestimated their customers' usage by up to 50 per cent. If this is the case, Telstra have got a big problem. They are out there promoting this service, on television and in newspaper advertisements, yet they have not got their billing system right. In the meantime, frustrated Telstra customers find themselves being lumped, right before Christmas, with a huge bill and being given very little time to deal with it.

I also mentioned in my question to the minister—for which I received, again, only the very gratuitous response that the government could not possibly have anything to do with what the minister described as the `micromanagement issues of Telstra'—that on 28 November Telstra's main ADSL application processing system apparently failed, leaving hundreds of would-be ADSL applicants waiting to receive the service. Apparently, this is called the `status 70 bug'. Many of these people are customers of ISPs, Internet service providers, who actually compete with Telstra. These ISPs, on-sellers or resellers of ADSL, are being blamed by their customers, yet they cannot fix the problem because it is Telstra's problem and they have to rely on Telstra to fix it. However, Telstra apparently only decided to fix the problem some five days later, on 3 December, and we have got very unofficial reports to date that the bug was only finally repaired on 6 December.

These issues go to the heart of the quality of service for Telstra customers. Very clearly the minister said that it is none of his business and it is none of the government's business how Telstra micromanage their problems and fix their billing arrangements. Yet, in the very next question from his own side, he responded by talking about these issues— specifically about how Telstra manage their technology and the types of service they hope to provide. It was with some hilarity that the minister quoted some of the Hansard relating to DCS20s, which I think exposes how complicit the minister is in trying to talk the talk and go down Telstra's line of trying to hide the details of their network. This is certainly Telstra's strategy in relation to the Estens inquiry and the Senate inquiry. Telstra do not want people to know about their network technology. They do not want people to know about pair gains. They certainly do not want people to know about what I now know are called DCS20s—a very large type of pair gain which inhibits the level of services provided to people who live in what Telstra describe as minor rural exchange areas.

The problem is that the government can no longer hide behind Telstra's spin on services. We know more about the network now. We know more about Telstra's technology. We know that they used pair gain technology and that that was a cost-cutting exercise to save money during a period when they were trying to fatten up their bottom line. We are talking about what Telstra hate most and Telstra have the minister now saying, `We want to try and hide this. It's not relevant.' At the Senate inquiry just last week Telstra said, `We don't want to tell you about our network technology. We want to hide all that.' The minister waltzed in here today and said, `I am going to tip out some of Telstra's spin here. You do not want know about the network,' and he made fun of questions which asked about the technical detail. Those questions are incredibly important, and they have done more to acknowledge and to find the reasons behind Telstra's poor service to the bush, to outer metropolitan areas and to inner city areas, where Telstra customers are angry and frustrated, and to find out more about their service levels that this government— (Time expired)