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Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Page: 251

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (12:43): I appreciate the opportunity to join the debate on the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency Bill 2011 and related bills and, in doing so, I intend to focus on the need for further investment in telecommunications in regional areas to ensure that all Australians benefit from the rollout of new technology—and I hasten to add, old technology, because we still face the situation in many parts of regional Australia, including numerous locations throughout the Gippsland electorate, where relatively old technology, in the form of mobile phones, do not provide coverage to locals and visitors to the region.

I have noticed that many regional MPs have taken the opportunity to speak in relation to the bills before the House, and I can understand why. It is because in regional communities we understand that the opportunities in terms of social growth and economic opportunities that are linked in to making sure that our communities have good access to telecommunications technology make it such an important issue for us. And I congratulate the regional members who have taken the opportunity to participate in this debate.

The Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency Bill 2011, which is before the House, provides a framework for the new universal service obligation, or USO, system. The bill, as others have said, will create a new statutory agency called the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency, to be known as TUSMA, with a review into the USO arrangements before 1 January 2018. I will not go into the full details of TUSMA's responsibilities because many other members have covered them, but I note that, in all, the total expected liability is in the order of $340 million per annum for the government to pay in subsidies to Telstra, which is a significant increase in the cost in delivering the USO. By way of comparison, Telstra received a subsidy of about $145 million per annum to deliver standard telephone services and payphones in 2010-11. As other speakers have indicated, the coalition strongly supports the USO. We recognise that the USO system is critical in ensuring that regional Australians remain connected and that subsidy is provided to assist in ensuring services such as payphones can still be provided, particularly in regional areas which lack mobile phone coverage, which I will get to in just a moment.

I have spoken before in the House on the need to keep investing in telecommunications services in regional areas. I note that the previous speaker made some very strong comments on the fact that, with the rollout of the NBN, there is absolutely no guarantee that many parts of regional Australia will enjoy the benefits but they will certainly wear their share of the cost of that expensive program. Many parts of my electorate do not enjoy anything like the level of service enjoyed by metropolitan areas.

The second bill before the House is the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Universal Service Reform) Bill. The purpose of this bill is to make consequential amendments to telecommunication and other legislation related to the introduction of the TUSMA Bill. This bill contains amendments to the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act which would allow the minister to progressively move the current USO regulations for standard telephone services and payphones if the specified conditions are met and appropriate contractual arrangements are in place.

The final bill we are considering is the Telecommunications (Industry Levy) Bill 2011. This bill is a procedural mechanism by which the levy is imposed on telecommunications carriers to support the operations of TUSMA.

As I indicated at the outset, I want to focus my contribution on the need to ensure that regional Australians benefit from government investment in new technology. Given the level of subsidy to Telstra in the future to provide services such as basic phone services and accessibility to payphones, I intend to keep lobbying within the coalition and the current federal government for further investment in mobile phone coverage improvements throughout regional Australia. There are still significant black spots in my community. I want to refer to the most recent announcement made by the federal government and the state government in Victoria in relation to a location based solution for emergency warnings. That system allows the authorities to send text messages to people based on the location of their mobile phone at the time of an emergency, whether it be bushfire, a major traffic accident or a flood event. Text messages give the authorities the opportunity to warn people of impending dangers but there are some very significant obstacles to overcome. Most significantly, I believe, some of the most bushfire prone and flood prone areas of Australia are also the areas which have patchy, poor or non-existent mobile phone coverage. In my electorate that is the biggest challenge we are going to face.

To be fair to governments of both persuasions, mobile phone coverage has improved significantly in the Gippsland electorate over the past 10 years. As I travel the region I am still aware of black spots which exist even on the main highway throughout the electorate. The development of the location based solution, which will be very important in emergency situations, is not going to assist local residents or visitors to my region if they do not have mobile phone coverage. I believe we should be rolling out a mobile phone black spots program to accompany the rollout of this emergency warning system so that residents and visitors to our regional communities have access to that technology.

I hasten to add that I support the location based solution. It is very worthwhile technology and I understand why state and federal governments are investing money in it, in partnership with Telstra. We need to make sure that, in the rollout of this new technology, regional areas do not miss out.

There is another aspect to this which I do not think has been recognised by the minister concerned. When we have such an increasingly connected community and an expectation that you will always be able to receive some level of coverage on your mobile phone or other technological devices, people start demanding this level of service wherever they are. We need to make sure that we do not oversell this particular technology to the community to make them think we can give them 100 per cent coverage, because we really do not want people to rely on receiving a text message or a warning for relevant authorities in times of a disaster.

Nothing will ever take the place of people being prepared particularly in bushfire prone areas and making sure bushfire plans are in place. When you have people making decisions about where to take a holiday with their family, every regional area needs to have access to the technology which people expect. It is a significant issue, certainly in terms of the social benefits and community health and safety. There are also some important economic considerations to take into account when talking about these types of systems and regional communities' access to them.

I have a fear that when metropolitan based people, tourists, are looking to visit a regional location to take a holiday, they will become increasingly conscious of the technology provided there. Issues such as mobile phone coverage and accessibility to the emergency warning system will be a part of the decision making process and communities without access to technology may be disadvantaged. It is so important that governments—the current Labor government or any future coalition government—are in a position to improve coverage in regional communities from social and economic perspectives.

It has been three years now since the Black Saturday disasters. Images of the Black Saturday disasters portrayed very vividly in the media the damage and devastation, creating a great sense of fear among some people who perhaps do not understand the regional environment as well as others. With such an enormous tragedy—173 people lost their lives and thousands of homes were destroyed or damaged—we need to ensure that people in metropolitan areas are not scared away from visiting our communities. Part of our challenge is to reassure them that it is safe to visit regional communities. One of the tools at our disposal in coming years will be the location based solution for the early warning system but it will work only if you can access technology right throughout regional Australia.

The extent of the black spots across Gippsland is alarming and I would suggest in many other regional areas, including my neighbouring electorate of Eden-Monaro, where the topography is very similar with heavily forested areas. There are many popular camping and holiday destinations in remote locations where people will not be able to access mobile phone coverage or take the benefit of the early warning system if and when it comes online. I have invited residents in my electorate to tell me about black spots in their area. I am passing those on to the relevant ministers. I can give a sense of the concerns people are raising, and these concerns are very similar to mine. Sally and Craig in Devon North wrote to me:

Our home was heavily impacted by the Black Saturday Bushfires. After the fires we had no landlines for well over a week and with such poor mobile phone service it was the cause of a great deal of stress, with a lot of family and friends having difficulty contacting us with such poor phone service.

We would hate to have to rely on our mobile phones for emergency warnings etc.

Graham in Bete Belong said:

Mobile reception is non-existent at this address rendering the mobile early warning system proposed by the Victorian Government inoperable in our area which has a population of approx. 20 people and holdings of farm land.

Many other locations in my electorate, some of them very close to major population centres in the Latrobe Valley such as Sale and Bairnsdale and others in more remote parts of East Gippsland or coastal locations, have similar problems. While many of them do not have large resident populations, they tend to be areas along the coast, often camping areas, which have quite significant holiday populations. I have urged the federal Minister for Emergency Management to undertake an audit right throughout Australia of some of these locations to get an understanding of exactly how many people are in these areas in the peak holiday periods and what we can do to allow them to access this emergency warning system, this location-based solution that has been promoted. I have urged the minister to get a better sense of the gaps in the current coverage.

Finally, I refer to the contribution of the shadow minister for regional communications and associate myself with the concerns he raised about the bureaucratic, complicated and expensive model chosen by this government as it sets about building the National Broadband Network. I have just referred to the lack of rollout of mobile phone coverage to regional communities. Quite frankly, regional people have no reason to trust this government when it says they will benefit from the NBN, because they have seen throughout history how they have fallen behind in service provision, whether it be mobile phones or in this case the rollout of the NBN.

I support the amendment circulated in an attempt to reduce the cost to the industry and also to ensure that TUSMA offers value for money to taxpayers. The government has failed to grapple with this concept of value for money. We have seen the home insulation debacle and the school halls program, but the Australian people expect us to spend their dollars like we would spend our own personal dollars. What they are seeing from this government just does not stack up. That is one of the biggest concerns about the NBN—people in regional Australia are concerned that they are not going to benefit much, if at all, and that may still be 10 years down the track, but their taxes are going to pay for it anyway. Some of them would be happy just getting a basic and reliable internet service and not the 100 megabits per second service being promised under the you-beaut NBN scheme.

The government and the minister responsible misunderstand the level of angst in the community about this issue. Regional Australians are going to miss out on all the bells and whistles associated with the NBN but they are still going to pay their share of taxes to fund it. They have no reason to trust this government when it comes to value for money. That sums up the concerns throughout the Gippsland electorate. People believe the NBN is looming as an enormous economic white elephant and they fear that they are not going to share in the benefits but will fall further behind. It is not a question of getting up here and being anti-NBN or anti new technology investment; it is a matter of making sure that regional Australians get a fair share and a fair go. That is all they ask for.

As I have said, regional Australians have no reason to trust this government with their money or to accept reassurances about value for money from the minister involved. I believe all Australians deserve a good phone service and all Australians deserve access to high-speed broadband but I fear that will not be the case under the NBN. Every day it is becoming more apparent to me, as I travel throughout my electorate and as I receive letters back from the minister's office in response to concerns I have raised, that there will be a significant number of haves and have-nots when it comes to accessing the NBN. I fear that regional Australia will be at the back of the queue.