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Thursday, 25 November 2010
Page: 2205

Senator FIELDING (Leader of the Family First Party) (12:30 PM) —These amendments do go to the heart of the bill, and I want to give my views on the heart of the bill. What sort of telecommunications infrastructure do we need for Australia in the 21st century? This question is really at the heart of this debate on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010. This bill proposes two key issues in regard to our future telecommunications in Australia. The first key issue is to do with setting up fairer competition with regard to wholesale access. The second, and more controversial, issue is to do with giving the green light to setting up the National Broadband Network through authorising the Telstra and NBN Co. deal.

With respect to the first issue of setting up fairer competition for access, I can say that I fully support these measures. Under the present arrangements Telstra, through no fault of its own, enjoys a monopoly position with its wholesale network. This has meant that other telcos have been put at a clear disadvantage compared with Telstra when competing in the industry. It has in effect made Telstra the price setter when it comes to determining the price for accessing its network, and it is clear that the current arbitrate-negotiate model has stifled competition. This outcome is bad for competition and ultimately bad for consumers.

From the very beginning I made it clear that I did not necessarily oppose the structural or vertical separation. What I did object to was the way the government unfairly put the gun to Telstra’s head before Telstra had a chance to negotiate with NBN Co. I strongly objected to the government rushing ahead with the legislation before Telstra and the government had a chance to properly explore whether they could come to an agreement. I believe in a fair go, and what the government was trying to do was not a fair go. Clearly an agreement has been reached between Telstra and NBN Co. and now we can rightly consider this legislation. After close to a year of negotiations, Telstra and the government have finally nutted out an agreement and that has ensured that 1.4 million Telstra shareholders have also been given a fair go. Telstra will structurally separate but it will be duly compensated, and this is the fair thing to do. I make no apologies for holding up the legislation until Telstra and NBN Co. came to some agreement. Given this, I think it is important that the reforms to wholesale access be allowed to go through.

Before turning to the second and more contentious issue of the bill—the issue of giving a green light to setting up the National Broadband Network—I want to provide some reference to where I am coming from. When I finished high school, I decided to study electronics engineering. The reason I studied electronics engineering as a young man was that I could see that technology was a critical key to helping ordinary Australians have a better life and that we could all achieve more with greater efficiency. I still hold that view today. I strongly believe that technology, including telecommunications infrastructure, is a vital building block for any advanced economy that wants to remain competitive in a global market. I have also spent time working for a telco and have a good understanding of the industry and networks.

With that background, I will now turn to the key question: what sort of telecommunications infrastructure do we need for Australia? After considering the various discussions with telco experts, Telstra, NBN Co., government, opposition, competition experts and other interested parties, I have formed the following views. (1) Telecommunications infrastructure is critical to Australia’s future productivity and it is critical for Australia to remain competitive in the global marketplace. Superfast broadband is the future, and if we are to be at the forefront of the global community we need the speed and infrastructure to be there. (2) A fibre based wholesale network will always provide superior speeds no matter how much you speed up copper or wireless. There is no doubt that fibre is the best way to improve our network speeds, as the technology has unlimited potential. (3) All Australians deserve access to superfast broadband. This means that small business will have the same access speeds as big business, which will give small business a fighting chance to compete in a growing, globalised market.

The final view that I formed is: if you continue to let the commercial business market drive access investment decisions, we will continue to see many people missing out on superfast broadband, and this will only get worse in an increasingly competitive market.

With regard to the issue of the business plan, I know that some will argue that we should wait until everyone has seen the business plan for the NBN before debating this bill. Also, there have been calls for the Productivity Commission to undertake a cost-benefit analysis. But the reality is that a business plan or a cost-benefit analysis will not change the fact that Australia needs to have telecommunications infrastructure that provides access to superfast broadband for all. What is more, any cost-benefit analysis undertaken will also be subject to counterclaims that it is riddled with uncertainties, and we will just end up going around in political circles.

In addition, how do you value the benefits of a superfast broadband network when many of the innovations that it will spur on do not yet exist? This is the reason it is difficult to quantify the full economic and social benefits of the NBN, because it is indeed transformative technology. To give just a small, simple example of this fact, let us look at the iPhone. When Apple invented the iPhone they thought it was a winner, but I doubt even they could have imagined the industries which would be created or the number of applications which would develop from it. Just look at how the iPhone has transformed the way we go about our personal and business lives. There are now entire new enterprises and technological solutions which exist solely because of the iPhone.

For the same reason, it is hard to imagine what the future will hold if Australia develops a ubiquitous superfast broadband network. For example, think how education could change as a result of having superfast broadband for all. Imagine if the government decided to offer free university with every broadband connection. Family First believes that a free online university could offer free degrees to all Australians. A free online university would make that easier and more affordable for many more Australians. This would be a real education revolution for the Australian people. Being able to do university from home at your own convenience, without a huge HECS debt, would also create enormous opportunities for mothers staying at home to look after the kids. It would also benefit people who want a career change but do not want to be burdened with a huge, midlife debt. This is the kind of innovation that can come from superfast broadband across Australia. It is a simple idea that would be transformative and help us continue to be a clever nation.

Another example to think about is how medical service delivery can change as a result of having superfast broadband for all. No matter where you live, whether in regional or suburban areas, medical service delivery can be right there. There will be no necessity for you to travel for hours and hours just to get medical services. You will be able to do that over the network, without leaving home.

I believe the upsides for Australia in developing a ubiquitous superfast broadband network are tremendous. This is a very subjective statement, I know. All I can say is that, given my background as an electronic engineer, I do believe superfast broadband for all is transformative technology and is the basic building block for Australia to remain competitive in the 21st century. Given these upsides and given that taxpayers’ money of around $27 billion will be fully repaid and the government will end up owning a public monopoly asset called the NBN Co., which will have net worth in the tens of billions, I can see no reason for me not to support the government’s National Broadband Network. I believe that fibre to the home and to all premises is the best way forward for Australia, and this legislation will give effect to that initiative. Because of this, I will be supporting the government’s bill and also supporting the amendments before the chair.