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Opening of WestNet Building, Osborne Park, WA.



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MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS, INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY AND THE ARTS

THE HON DARYL WILLIAMS AM QC MP

Opening of WestNet Building

Osborne Park, WA

Friday 12 March 2004 at 6.00pm

(Check against delivery)

Thank you Peter [WestNet Managing Director Peter Brown].

Introduction

It is always heartening for the Government to see another communications company discover that it has outgrown its base. This is proof of the health and vitality of the sector. I am particularly pleased that WestNet is a very strong example of this in my own home State.

But I must say that even by the standards of a fast-growing industry, WestNet's development over the past decade has been remarkable. And its success has been well-deserved. WestNet has not just ridden the wave that is taking Australia into the information age. It has actively helped to swell that wave, promoting the benefits of Internet and broadband connectivity to the community, particularly to people living and working in regional and rural Australia.

WestNet has helped to drive the incredible Internet roll-out that has seen one in two households connected to the web nationally. It has also been successful in convincing consumers to take that next, logical step to embrace higher-bandwidth services.

I understand that WestNet was voted the number one ISP for customer service in a recent Whirlpool survey, and was ranked top ISP in Western Australia by WA Business News, outranking many larger publicly listed service providers.

Such recognition is testimony to WestNet's innovative business practices and attention to customer service. The accolades are also a reminder of the market opportunities that exist for innovative and entrepreneurial companies in the information age.

Australia embraces the Internet - and now broadband

Looking at the communications landscape in Australia in 2004 it is hard to believe that it was not so long ago that Australians wanting Internet access were at the mercy of a 300 bits-per-second cradle modem.

Now, of course, growing numbers of us are finding anything less than high bandwidth connections too slow and clunky. After a relatively modest start, the broadband roll-out is now developing an unstoppable momentum. Right around the country more and more consumers are turning to high-speed services like ADSL, hundreds of times quicker than even the fastest of offerings a decade ago.

Of our five million or so Internet subscribers nationally, 650,000 had broadband access in September last year. And the latest figures from the ACCC indicate that, if growth trends persist, that figure will top one million by July.

Realising the potential of broadband

Household broadband connectivity, though welcome, is not the only or even the best measure of our national progress in exploiting the full potential of the technology.

Broadband has the potential to deliver significant social and economic benefits. But this potential will only be realised if we apply the technology effectively, and if we apply it where it is most needed. That means focusing on the priority sectors of health care, education, and research. And it means ensuring that small and medium enterprises, particularly those in regional and rural Australia, are not left behind.

We are already seeing evidence that broadband is helping SMEs to reduce their operating costs and giving rural enterprises the capacity to tap into global markets.

In the area of health, high-speed links are increasingly being used to deliver remote consultations, diagnosis and patient monitoring.

In the education sector, broadband is transforming distance learning programs in schools and universities.

And what we have witnessed so far is just the beginning. The transforming potential of the technology is only now being recognised. The challenge is to give some direction to this headlong transformation, to ensure that the nation's social and economic interests are served.

The National Broadband Strategy

If Australia is to position itself well, right from the earliest years of the information economy, industry and governments at all levels need to have a common understanding of what is at stake. We need a shared agenda and a shared commitment to make the most of this important transitional period.

I recently launched a National Broadband Strategy, developed in collaboration with the State and Territory governments. The aim of the strategy is to improve access to broadband in regional Australia at prices broadly comparable to those charged in urban areas. And to do so in a way that encourages competition and minimises market distortion.

I am sure that by now you are familiar with some of the major elements of the strategy. They include the $107.8 million Higher Bandwidth Incentive Scheme, which gives industry a real incentive to take high bandwidth services deep into regional Australia at prices comparable to those charged in metropolitan areas. Another element of the package is the Coordinated Communications Infrastructure Fund, which will help build broadband infrastructure in the health and education sectors. A third major plank to the strategy is funding for demand aggregation brokers. These brokers will act at the local, state and national level to investigate strategies for bringing regionally-based communities and businesses, and even whole sectors on a national level together to determine their bandwidth needs and encourage investment from service providers

The importance of competition

The National Broadband Strategy represents a significant financial investment by the Government. But you will notice that it is an investment that is designed to operate in a robustly competitive marketplace. Indeed, it is an investment that actively encourages greater competition.

Competition has been the crucial ingredient to the transformation of the telecommunications market. In less than a decade, against the backdrop of the Government's competition regime, we have seen the disappearance of a monopoly and the emergence of a market boasting more than 550 ISPs and more than 90 licensed carriers.

We are now seeing competition itself acting as a driver of further broadband take-up. Carriers and service providers are lowering their prices, relaxing excess usage charges and tailoring their products to the market.

WestNet's outstanding success over the past decade is proof of the abundant growth opportunities that exist for those with talent and a good business plan.

May your successes continue as you settle into your new home.