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Thursday, 21 June 2007
Page: 91

Senator KIRK (3:14 PM) —I rise to take note of answers given by Senator Coonan to questions asked of her this afternoon in question time. After having stubbornly denied broadband was a problem for the last two years, in the shadow of an election we see the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, backflipping. Just like its response to climate change, the Howard government’s response to broadband is simply too little, too late. The Prime Minister has to answer a simple question: why does the Prime Minister believe that it is okay for the city to have access to fibre broadband whilst at the same time it makes rural and regional Australia make do with a patchwork of lesser technologies? That is the fundamental question that the Prime Minister needs to answer.

If the wireless technologies the government is fobbing off onto rural and regional Australia are as good as fibre, Mr Howard should commit to using these technologies exclusively in his own office. Australians deserve better than the two-tier broadband system that is being promoted by this government. We in the ALP believe that rural and regional Australia deserves access to the same infrastructure as that which is provided in the city.

In taking note of answers, Senator Ludwig was talking earlier about the nature of the WiMAX technology, and I want to refer in my remarks here today to some of the information that has emerged in relation to that technology. We know that the Howard government have said that, in order to reach what they claim to be 99 per cent of Australians with their $900 million, they will rely on wireless broadband technology—either 3G or WiMAX. But we heard today that even the minister admitted that existing wireless technology simply will not be able to deliver 12 megabits of broadband speed. Wireless broadband, including satellite, WiMAX and 3G, suffers from a range of technical problems, such as performance declining with distance, bad weather, hilly geography and the number of people using the service at any one time—that is, congestion.

The cost-effectiveness of WiMAX against fixed-line broadband is also questionable. A recent OECD report, The implications of WiMAX for competition and regulation,found a number of things in relation to this technology. I will just mention a few of these in the time that I have available. The report found:

Despite all the excitement over Wimax, the ultimate role of Wimax in the wireless market is debatable.

It also found that many predictions and comments about WiMAX in the press may be overly optimistic and tend to rely on theoretical maximums rather than what users may typically be able to expect. So even the OECD has significant concerns about the effectiveness of this technology.

How is Labor’s position different from that being proposed by the government? Labor’s plan for a national broadband network is a long-term investment in the nation’s future. What the Prime Minister is proposing is simply an election year bandaid. The government intends to create two classes of broadband service in Australia: one for the five mainland capital cities and another for the rest of the nation. As I said, Australians in metropolitan areas will get access to a world-class fibre-to-the-node network, while the rest of the country will have to make do with an as yet unspecified mix of technologies.

In contrast, our plan for a fibre-to-the-node national broadband network delivers true broadband speeds to 98 per cent of Australian homes and businesses. This is a truly national plan that will bring world-class infrastructure to almost all Australians. If the wireless technologies that the government is fobbing off onto rural and regional Australians are as good as fibre, the Prime Minister should, as I said, put his money where his mouth is and use these technologies exclusively in his own office. When the Prime Minister commits to that then perhaps we might believe that he really does believe that the quality of this technology is good enough to be thrust upon rural and regional Australia.