House of Representatives
Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2019 and Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme Charge) Bill 2019
I rise to speak briefly in support of these bills, with a few stories of reservation.
With the NBN rollout at 98 per cent, and due for completion in June this year, the last parts of rural and regional Australia—the so-called hard-to-reach places—are finally being connected.
The NBN provides significant economic and social benefits in regional communities. It boosts productivity, employment and innovation. When I visit small businesses and large producers in Indi I am always impressed by how quickly these people pick up on the opportunities of the NBN. I’ve seen online recruiting agencies for rural practitioners. I’ve seen jewellery manufacturers. I’ve seen rural tele-health to support emergency departments in far remote places of my electorate. I’ve seen people engaging in online learning who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to get a university degree, and I’m really happy about that. But we have to keep an eye on NBN. We have to make sure that the quality of our NBN services is, indeed, what we truly need in rural Australia and is equal to what other Australians receive.
The poor quality of telecommunications in rural and regional Australia is a long story. I won’t tell you the whole story, but it is a long story. Historical under-investment and metro-specific policy over decades means rural and regional communities are still struggling for reliable access and lagging behind in digital literacy. Nowhere has the legacy of this underinvestment, and the subsequent fragility of these services, been more evident than in our recent bushfires. With mobile phone towers and radio transmitters incinerated, whole communities were isolated for weeks.
With the rollout of NBN almost complete, the conversation will shift now from access—the hardware, the line to the premises, the satellite installed on the roof—to quality. Does this service do what I need it to do? Is it affordable? Rural and regional Australians know that being connected is only the first step. Historically we pay a high price for poor-quality services. As the government moves now to deliver these telecommunications reforms, we need to ensure that the product actually meets the needs of the customers outside the capitals and allows regional Australians to fully participate in the digital age.
Today I will address the two parts of these bills which go directly to these issues. Constituents in Indi access the internet via fixed wireless and satellite networks at rates many times the national average. Indeed, my own home, only three kilometres out of Wangaratta, receives internet this way. These methods suit rural areas with low population density, where it’s not cost-effective to install a physical line. But, still, these arrangements are expensive, costing an estimated $9.8 billion over the next 30 years. The regional broadband scheme, which this bill introduces, sets up a funding arrangement for these services by requiring carriers to pay $7.10 per month for each premises with superfast broadband. This change is an improvement on the current system, where NBN cross-subsidises the investment through opaque internal accounting.
I’m pleased that advocates for rural and regional telecommunications support this move. These include the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network; the Country Women’s Association; the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association and the Regional, Rural and Remote Communications Coalition, whose members include the National Farmers’ Federation and Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia. I am concerned, however, that the new fee imposed by the scheme will increase the cost of broadband. It’s up to the carriers and retailers to decide whether to pass this charge on to the consumers. The government has reassured us that 95 per cent of consumers will not experience a price rise, and for the remaining five per cent, competition will put downward pressure on these prices. I sincerely hope this is in fact the case and that the goal of equitable cost-sharing is not used as an excuse to price-gouge customers, customers like those in my electorate.
Access to the internet is becoming as essential to daily life as access to electricity or water. It’s now the government’s main channel for interacting with citizens. This includes Centrelink reporting, the ATO and myGov. Yet this access is meaningless if it’s unaffordable, particularly for low-income families. Coverage has to be universal not just on paper but in the reality of people’s lives.
I welcome the second part of these bills. That’s the introduction of the statutory infrastructure provider obligations on NBN Co and other carriers. These obligations will ensure that all Australian premises are able to access superfast broadband services of 25 megabits per second or better. If it’s not reasonable to connect premises via fixed line, the provider must provide a fixed-wireless or satellite technology solution. On fixed-wireless services, voice services for consumers must be supported.
All people in Australia currently have guaranteed access to a telephone voice service through the Universal Service Obligation. This change helps build on that and provides consumers with certainty that all people in Australia, no matter where they live, have access to high-speed NBN. This news will be very welcome to constituents of mine who access the NBN via satellite or fixed wireless, but I must say that these services still fall far below what they need, and I’d like to share just a couple of their stories.
A constituent who lives in Indi wrote to me expressing his frustration with the service he receives by satellite, the only NBN service available for his property. He and his partner are both undertaking university study by distance, online, to further their careers. They both actively volunteer with community groups and committees. But the current monthly data caps placed on NBN satellite customers mean they routinely run out of data. This places them at a huge disadvantage with regard to their ongoing education and involvement with the community groups that they serve. They’ve tried getting a bigger package, but they can’t purchase any additional data, due to the NBN Fair Use Policy. As he told my office:
I’ll cut to the chase, I truly feel like a second class citizen, I am disadvantaged simply due to my location, as I stated those in very close proximity to us have access to far better technology at a fraction of the cost. Whilst we are left short every month, I feel for those in more remote areas who rely on this technology for their children’s education.
Another example is the experience of the Outdoor Education Group, or OEG. They’re based in Eildon. OEG provide challenging, hands-on experiences for schoolkids, giving them the opportunity to get outdoors and go beyond their comfort zones through activities such as rafting, bushwalking, camping and high- and low-rope courses. OEG is hugely successful. It has over 200 staff, a revenue of $20 million and camps right across Australia. To date, they’ve educated and cared for two million students. As you can imagine, when you’re operating between locations and corralling hundreds of children, fast and reliable internet is absolutely essential not just for business but for safety. In their location of Eildon, fixed-wireless internet is the service available to them. Yet, in a 10-day period last September, for seven days there was no connection during business hours. The accountholder was not notified, and there was no clear advice on when the disruption would end. Staff were forced to hotspot using their phones, which meant they couldn’t access the internal server, severely impacting on their productivity. The outages are completely unacceptable. As OEG told my office:
… This seems unbelievable to me and totally discourages businesses from operating in regional areas, NBN do not answer to anyone and are being very quiet about what is going on and what has been causing the issues I have mentioned, especially moving into summer and being in a bushfire prone area of the state.
I don’t believe a reasonable person could expect a business to run efficiently with these vague notifications, particularly an organisation that is regularly conducting interviews and meetings via the internet.
That was a direct quote. The NBN has also recently reduced OEG’s upload speeds by 50 per cent. Upload speed is crucial, as most of their work is done between different offices, and they rely on cloud based applications, with data frequently uploaded as work is saved. After a meeting between myself, NBN and OEG, I was pleased that NBN agreed to schedule outages before OEG’s busy period, commencing in February this year. OEG is a huge, successful employer which has made rural and regional Australia its home base. We want and we need more of these businesses outside of our capital cities so our regions can prosper. Extensive issues with NBN outages cause headaches and difficulties for regional businesses. How many other potential businesses decide that they simply wouldn’t take the risk of moving to regional Australia?
Of course, I can’t stand here and talk about NBN without at least mentioning mobile phone black spots too, because they still remain. The famous Oxley Bush Market, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in November 2019 and last month won the Rural City of Wangaratta’s Community Event of the Year, struggled with connectivity issues, which meant using EFTPOS to sell wares was a gamble. How much more commerce could the 175 stallholders conduct if they just had reliable reception?
I conclude by saying that I’m a member of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network and I am absolutely committed to keeping a close eye on the rollout of the NBN to ensure rural and regional Australians not only get NBN but also get the quality NBN they need.
[February 13, 2020]