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Wednesday, 27 October 2010
Page: 955

Senator WILLIAMS (5:32 PM) —Just following on from when Senator Xenophon paraphrased the member for New England when he said, ‘We must do it right and we must do it the first time,’ we must also have a vigorous assessment of the value for what this program is going to cost.

I refer to Senator Farrell, who spoke earlier on about outback Jamestown. I am sure the people of Jamestown would not be very pleased to think they live in the outback. To me outback South Australia would be somewhere like Innamincka, Marree or Coober Pedy. I am sure that many call 200 kilometres out of Adelaide a different term from ‘the outback’.

First of all it was $4.7 billion. That was the plan taken to the election in 2007 by Mr Rudd; fibre to the node for $4.7 billion. Then someone came up with the dreamt-up figure of $43 billion to take fibre to the home, ‘We will run it all over Australia and run it into the houses,’ at an average cost of about $5,000 a house. The original plan of $43 billion was going to have $21 billion from the private sector invested into the National Broadband Network. Where is the $21 billion from the private sector? It is not there. Why is it not there? The private sector knows what a risk it would be, and that the risk of a return on their investment would be huge. That is why there is no private sector investment in it.

Senator Conroy’s plan is for a 100-megabytes per second download. The first question I ask is how many will use the 100-megabytes download—the fast lane—with this system? We know that in places like South Korea and Japan, that have had the 100 megabytes download per second system for 10 years or so, just 35 per cent have taken it up after 10 years. Most are happy with the 12- to 20-megabytes download.

This week I experienced Telstra’s ability to provide video facilities for medical services with just four megabytes of download. Just four megabytes will give you the video conferencing which would be so welcome for regional areas and so good in medical facilities. You do not need 100-megabytes download: four will do it. I saw it firsthand with Telstra here in Parliament House last week.

The minister gloats that 87 per cent of people in the Armidale area have taken up the free offer of hooking up the fibre to their homes. There was media story after media story and in the latter days of it they finally convinced people to say, ‘Hey, this is free. You had better take it.’ They were giving something away and people were not adopting it—they were not going to take it up. It took the media a huge selling exercise to actually get people to take it up.

But how many are going to hook into the 100 megabytes? I would think perhaps 10 per cent if they are lucky. We do not know the cost. We do know that people are hooked into the 12- to 20-megabytes download at a cost of $50 or $55 a month, as Senator Conroy said during a Senate estimates. Those are introductory prices. But we could be looking at $1,200 to $1,400 a year for those households who want to have the 100-megabytes download installed to their premises.

What happened in Tasmania when they kicked it off? Instead of having the opt-in system they had to change it to opt out. When it was opt in and people had to notify NBN Co. to say, ‘Hey, hook the fibre up to my home,’ 16 to 25 per cent were having it done. So they had to go to the opt out system: ‘We will put it to your house unless you tell us not to.’ People were simply not taking it up.

Just this week, the Business Council of Australia said that a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of the NBN was needed. This has been echoed by Reserve Bank of Australia board member Roger Corbett, who said that the Productivity Commission should be asked to review the whole NBN process of budget spending et cetera. Let us hope that shadow minister Malcolm Turnbull is successful in getting a proper Productivity Commission study into the return for dollar invested in the NBN Co. Or will it be just like the ceiling batts situation, where hundreds of millions of dollars were rorted and wasted? Or will it be like the school buildings fiasco under the Building the Education Revolution program, where we have seen billions wasted? It is amazing: I went to a school on election day, 21 August, at a little place called Kingstown. There was a building of about 10 metres by eight metres with a little kitchen in it. It cost $330,000! That would build you a huge, four-bedroom brick home, but it just gets you a little building under the Building the Education Revolution program. Is it going to be the same with the National Broadband Network? Is there going to be more waste, like in the green loans fiasco, which in the end had to be pulled due to the simple waste of millions of dollars in that program?

This is the point: we all want fast broadband. We know technology is changing, week after week. We know that now, with wireless broadband, Telstra have introduced a 44-meg download. You can take your laptop with you and use it anywhere you want to where you can get a phone signal. They have 44-megs but, no, we are going to roll out fibre to every household in Australia at the most enormous cost. That money will be borrowed—you can bet on that. Just like the $100 million a day, seven days a week, that the government is borrowing, it will be borrowed, and someone is going to have to pay. It might be free to your house now. You might get it hooked up for free, but nothing is free, and the taxpayers or the users will pay for it in the long term. This is a concern. That is why we need this study into the whole NBN to see what return for dollar investment is actually there. If we do not have this—and no doubt some will not support it—it will be simply another dream of the federal government and billions of dollars will be wasted once again.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Pratt)—Order! The time for the debate has expired.