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Thursday, 16 March 2000
Page: 14946

Mr NEVILLE (10:02 AM) —The telecommunications industry is rapidly advancing in new technology, services and efficiency. The deregulation of the telecommunications industry in 1997 has seen Australia move from one all-purpose carrier, Telstra, to 30-plus carriers, 100 service providers and more than 800 Internet providers. This is of significant benefit to users, though the introduction of new and improved services and lower prices have also played their part. It has also seen the proliferation of new telephone numbers and call centres assisting customers through the minutiae of the Australian telecommunications system.

The Telecommunications (Numbering Charges) Amendment Bill 1999 amends the Telecommunications (Numbering Charges) Act 1997, which essentially taxes carriage services provided on a certain range of telephone numbers. In 1998-99 about $60 million in revenue was collected from numbering charges. The charges apply to certain numbers—for example, the 13, 1300 and 1800 numbers and some mobile services. I would like to make it very clear, lest there be any misunderstanding in the community, that these charges do not apply to the standard eight digit numbers that people use in their homes and businesses.

The carriage service provider may hold a number as a result of being allocated the number by the Australian Communications Authority or through the transfer of a number as a result of a commercial resale arrangement. The number of transfers from primary providers, those who have been allocated numbers, to secondary providers—in other words, the resellers—makes the collection of the annual charge administratively complex. In 1997-98 the ACA had to deal with 102 carriage service providers, 83 of whom were secondary suppliers paying only six per cent of the total revenue, with most invoices being less than $120.

The bill provides two minor amendments to enhance the act's operation and simplify the administration for service providers. Firstly, the act will be amended to explicitly define what are transfers of numbers for the purposes of the act. As a result, certain types of number movements would not result in the liability for charges being transferred. The liability remains with the primary service provider, which may collect the charges from the secondary providers. The ACA has advised that all the companies that transferred numbers in 1998-99—namely, Telstra, Optus, Vodafone and AAPT—support the proposal because it will simplify administration. The overall effect will be to reduce the number of invoices issued by the Australian Communications Authority.

Secondly, the act will be amended to move the date on which the charges are imposed from 22 May to a date in April, as determined by the ACA. This will give the ACA some flexibility in setting the date and give it at least three additional weeks to undertake its tasks. Providers will also have six to 10 weeks notice of the charge date and will have a minimum of 30 days in which to pay their invoices. The amendments today reflect the government's aim to ensure that the administration of number charging arrangements is done in an efficient, effective and timely manner. It is heartening that a bill like this needs to be introduced. Significant numbers of telecommunications providers have entered the marketplace and this has necessitated the bill.

Deregulation has benefited consumers because other carriers have created an increased focus on the efficiency, timeliness and competitiveness of which I spoke. During our time in government, untimed local calls have come down as low as 15c, STD charges have dropped by as much as 45 per cent and international charges have fallen by as much as 80 per cent. Telstra's monopoly-like grip on the $5 billion local call market is being challenged. Optus is charging 20c with cheap line rentals and, in recent months, we have seen AAPT, RSL Communications and Primus undercutting Telstra's untimed local call charges with offers between 15c and 17½c. Telstra has responded to this competition by reducing its standard call rate from 25c to 22c, and a 15c call within a local exchange area has been offered. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Chairman, Alan Fels, says that he thinks there will be further reductions in the near future. `This is not the end of local telephone call competition but the beginning,' Mr Fels said. And most welcome it will be for my constituents in regional and rural Australia.

In addition to the local call market, we have also witnessed significant price competition in the mobile market, with cheaper pricing packages on offer from a range of existing and new entrants. I think it is now time to introduce a tender system for the universal service obligation. For those who are not adept in this field, this is a legal obligation that states that every Australian, wherever they live or work, should have reasonable access to a standard telephone line service. Currently, Telstra is the USO provider and therefore has to provide these services—namely, standard telephones, pay phones and digital data service. The USO works in practice by forcing all telecommunications carriers to contribute—based on their eligible revenue—to the cost of providing services to rural and remote areas. The government also provides a substantial subsidy, as honourable members will be aware.

The National Party is absolutely committed to the best possible services for regional and rural Australia. We are determined to maintain the momentum that has occurred since the visit here by the Telstra executives last Thursday of focusing on service standards in the bush and, even beyond that, on a timely, efficient and cost- Honourable members will also be aware that the National Party has a very strong view on the 49.9 per cent private ownership of Telstra. It does not wish that percentage to go beyond that until a certain set of conditions apply. Those conditions include a rigorous and searching inquiry into Telstra's performance, which is a very important aspect. With respect to Telstra 2, the social bonus arose out of a resolution of a National Party central council meeting in Bundaberg two years ago this month. I might add that I was the mover of that motion. That mandated what the National Party saw as seven major areas that needed to be looked at in providing basic broadcast and telecommunications services to regional Australia. That was brought to Canberra by Senator Boswell and negotiated with the Prime Minister and Senator Alston. They came to a very amicable arrangement which was welcomed by National and Liberal country members alike—and, I am sure, by country Labor members, such as they are.

Mr Hardgrave —How many?

Mr NEVILLE —Few and far between. It provided $762 million worth of additional services to regional and rural Australia. It has since become known as the Bundaberg resolution. What I am about to say might, to some of my colleagues, seem to be heresy. There are some matters in addition to mandating that Telstra provide connections, reconnections, service and maintenance to all Australians, but particularly to those in isolated areas where telecommunications are part of their lifeblood. In these areas you cannot run up the street and pick up the payphone, and many areas do not have access to mobile telephony, so the phone line is a very important thing. I am not minimising the importance of that for one moment, but I think we have to look beyond that to the new horizon. The new horizon is a range of satellite-provided services, the like of which we have not seen anywhere in Australia, much less in the bush. It is an opportunity, for the first time since the introduction of very basic telecommunications—the old wind-up phones and the party lines—for regional and rural Australia to get on the front foot and have a service which is equal to, if not better than, that which exists in the capital cities. This week a number of companies have visited the parliament. Optus have been here.

Mr NEVILLE —It is good to hear one of my Labor colleagues supporting this very important change in direction. Another company, the Farmwide and Heartland consortium, which have also been active in the parliament this week, have offered two models. One model, for example, offers 1.2 metre dishes, a number of phone lines, access to Austar or Optus pay television, free-to-air television and, in the next few years, interactivity with digital television. They would undertake to keep those calls at the same price as the USO price—22c or less. They would also undertake not to charge connection fees in excess of what Telstra is currently providing. They could provide data at 64 kilobytes. That is one offer. The Optus offer is that it would take over the USO. I have one problem with that: even if that were the case, there would still be a requirement for Telstra to maintain basic services to some areas. Whether there would have to be two levels of USO would need to be looked at by the government.

Going to the Farmwide and Heartland proposals, theirs is that they would require a one-off payment from government of about $240 million and that they would put all Australia under a satellite umbrella, so to speak. They could provide up to four phone lines to each home, access to free-to-air television and pay television, access to high-speed data, and they are willing to match, or more than match, the current charges that Telstra is charging in the bush. For example, their maximum local call charge is 20c; their STD call connection is 15c; their maximum STD call per minute is 20c; their Internet connection cost is zero; and they use a more innovative form of Internet usage charge based on $5 for the first 25 megabytes and then 20c per megabyte thereafter. It is interesting stuff. I am not speaking today to favour any of those, but I would like them to start coming into the consciousness of members from both sides of the House.

What we have to be careful of—and I am passionate about this—is that in focusing on copper cable and on the minutiae of the ownership of Telstra we may lose a great opportunity. Hand in hand with that, the DCRS technology of Telstra is not the greatest technology in the world. It has served us well, it is microwave technology, and for the people in remote areas it has been providing a very good service. I do not speak for the government; I speak just as a private member on this issue, but what we have to ask ourselves is whether we are going to allow regional and rural Australia to lock itself into that technology which will require a fairly high USO to back it, or are we going to look more innovatively into putting the whole of Australia, or certainly the whole of remote Australia, under a satellite umbrella? Within two years this technology will be at our doorstep, so to speak.

Just to illustrate the point on how costs are coming down—although this is not germane to my current argument—just two years ago in this place I saw a demonstration by Iridium. They showed us the first satellite phone. It looked about the size of a stubby; it even looked like a stubby with the phone recessed into this rather bulky looking round thing that was mainly batteries and aerials. Within 15 months we saw one that was not much bigger than the mobile phones we are using today. The price had come down from $5,000 for the stubby style thing to $2,000. The cost of usage had come down from over $2 a minute to $1.40 a minute. And now we have seen one, smaller still, at $1,200, with a commensurate drop in the usage charge. If that can happen with mobile telephony, which of itself is a more expensive medium than the normal household phone, imagine what satellite technology can do to connecting those in the bush.

I am not saying that Telstra's repairs, service, maintenance and connection are not important; in fact, I think they are very important. In fact, I would go so far as to say they are so important that we should even boost the service guarantee levels to make it less attractive for them to be indolent about it. I am not saying that the 49.9 per cent is not an important point for a lot of rural Australians, especially at national and at some rural levels. It is very important because it is the great dividing line that says that up to this point the government still has notional control and therefore we want to see Telstra perform. The National Party has said that we will not go beyond that point unless there is a rigorous and searching inquiry into Telstra and that that T2 social bonus is delivered.

Beyond that—and I reiterate my original premise—it is vital that we do not just fixate on copper cable, that we do not fixate on the old microwave technology and have a huge USO around it to the exclusion of all others, and that we do not fixate on the minutiae of the ownership of Telstra. We must lift our sights over that horizon, and to get over that horizon we are going to need a satellite up there.

We talked today at the start of this debate about the numbering charges, but they are just one small symbol of efficiency the government is giving to the telecommunications industry. I urge the government and I urge members of goodwill in all three major parties in this House of Representatives to lift their vision and let us make sure that the whole of Australia gets on the front foot; but, more particularly, that for those people in regional and rural Australia who have been told that they have to be efficient, that they have to get on the Internet, that they have to be able to interact with their agents and so forth overseas, they do not try to do this through antiquated technology but through the most modern technology.