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Monday, 18 November 2002
Page: 6585

Senator ROBERT RAY (2:34 PM) —I direct my question to the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Alston. Is the minister aware of claims that the Telstra Chief Executive Officer, Dr Ziggy Switkowski, has a mobile phone microcell installed in his backyard? Are these claims accurate? If so, can the minister inform the Senate what the cost of such an installation would be? Isn't it a fact that there is a mobile phone tower a mere 200 metres from Dr Switkowski's Toorak home? Is the microcell there owing to poor reception? What example does this send to the rest of Australia in terms of coverage for mobile phones?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I did see that item and I am not surprised, of course, that it would come to the attention of Senator Ray. I am not sure whether you are close enough to benefit from this particular microcell, but the reality is—

Senator Carr —Can I have one?

Senator ALSTON —I will look into that. I will take that as a request. A microcell benefits not just the person in whose place it might be constructed—

Senator Faulkner —So there is one in his backyard?

Senator ALSTON —Yes. I do not think there is any doubt about that. I am presuming that Senator Ray read the article in the Sydney Morning Herald. I am surprised Senator Faulkner did not see it.

Senator Faulkner —I did see the story.

Senator ALSTON —You will have seen that the story makes it clear:

... `there are no favours for so-called mates'. The reasons for the installations ... are purely commercial.

The article goes on to say:

... mobile phone coverage in Toorak had been a bone of contention because of the suburb's hilly terrain.

Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator ALSTON —It is very difficult to get line of sight when there are three or four storeys—I understand that.

Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator ALSTON —It is a hardship post. If you would like to move there, all you have to do is buy a little piece of dirt and we might be able to make some special arrangements for you. It is actually a matter for Telstra. I had thought that Dr Switkowski moved away from Kew because of the poor mobile phone reception, but it looks as though he has found somewhere even worse. It must be stressed that it is a decision for Telstra. The mere fact that there is a facility 200 metres away does not mean that he will get adequate reception. I do not see anything particularly wrong with a company wanting to ensure that its CEO is able to get good quality reception at all times.

Senator Conroy —Does your phone get boosted by it?

Senator ALSTON —No, I am not close enough. As I said, I think Senator Ray lives a lot closer to Toorak than I do, and if anyone is going to benefit from wider coverage it is probably him. The point is that it does not just benefit the individual on whose property it is built. It is a matter for Telstra to decide. I would have thought that a special case can be justified in terms of ensuring that the CEO has adequate coverage. That microcell is obviously something that Telstra can install in other places on demand.

Senator Sherry —Why haven't they done it? What about in the bush?

Senator ALSTON —The average base station would cost about half a million dollars. We have got to a point where about 90 per cent of the population will be within range of fixed base stations.

Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator ALSTON —Ninety-eight per cent of the population do not live in Toorak. You might think they do but perhaps you should pay a visit. I think it is fair to say that most metropolitan areas are well and truly covered. But there are always black spots. You know that. That is a function of technology; it is not a function of being able to spend a bit more. If there is a particular need for a microcell then it is a matter for Telstra's commercial judgment about where they install it. As far as Dr Switkowski is concerned, I would have thought that, if there is any one person in Telstra who might be entitled to have good quality coverage, it is the CEO.

Senator ROBERT RAY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I invite the minister to address the part of my question as to the cost of the installation of the microcell. Was it totally borne by the chief executive or was it a subsidy from Telstra? Again I ask him: what sort of example does it set for the rest of Australia when he is given this sort of treatment and others simply do not have the same access at affordable prices?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I will see what I can find out for you about the cost. You cannot pretend that somehow Dr Switkowski, as the CEO of pretty much the largest company in Australia, is just an ordinary citizen.

Opposition senators interjecting

Senator ALSTON —He would not get much of a chance to run it if you lot were ever in government. You would be fighting him hand and foot. You would be sending him ministerial directions every second day. He might as well go home. But right now he has a real job to do. He does it well and he needs to do it in a way that ensures that he has access to the latest technology. Therefore, one can understand why there might be a need in his instance. I do not accept the proposition that he is just another citizen. He happens to be the CEO of the company and I assume that is the basis on which they have made that arrangement for him. I will find out the cost, if I can, and get back to you.