I acknowledge the contribution from the previous speaker, the member for Riverina. There’s a really good reason why regional MPs are speaking on this bill: it really matters to us. I, too, appreciate having the Minister for Communications and the minister’s team in the room to listen to our contributions. Much of what you hear you would have heard before, but you will continue to hear it until we have solved the problem of telecommunications connectivity right across rural, regional and remote Australia.

I rise to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Enhancing Consumer Safeguards and Other Measures) Bill 2023. This bill makes important reforms to the way we regulate internet providers like the NBN so that the system better meets the needs of a modern Australia. I welcome the reforms to make the internet more available and more reliable, especially in country Australia. I want to put on the record that I want to thank the minister for her work on this. It’s critical because, in regional, rural and remote Australia, the NBN rollout has really been disappointingly slow. If ever there was a case of overpromise and under-delivery, it is the disappointment for rural, regional and remote Australians from the time that the NBN was announced. I will continue to advocate until it is as good as it can possibly be. In Indi towns like Violet Town and across the Strathbogie shire, many residents rely on fixed wireless and satellite. Those who do have access to the NBN face congestion, slower speeds and dropouts still to this very day.

This bill is a step towards strengthening consumer protections when it comes to the internet, because when you pay for a service like the NBN you expect it to work. This bill will improve consumer safeguards through a series of amendments, including (1) requiring providers to pay compensation to customers if providers contravene a standard, including standards about connecting and supplying internet; (2) expanding the powers of the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman to resolve complaints about internet connections; and (3) empowering the internet provider regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, to issue notices to developers who do not install functional, fibre-ready facilities in new developments, because, when you move into a new home, you expect your power and water to be connected, and the same standards should apply to the internet. Finally, the bill also empowers the ACMA to publicly identify internet carriers that aren’t up to scratch. This will help give consumers more information on how the NBN and other internet service providers are performing, including which are meeting standards and which are lagging behind. And I am always pro transparency.

I am supporting this bill because all Australians deserve better consumer protections when it comes to the delivery and supply of reliable, adequate internet. People across my electorate of Indi work online, study online and keep in touch with family and friends online. Telehealth has made health care more accessible to those of us in the regions, and this is critical; I can’t overstate it. Our agricultural communities and our farmers have come to rely on real-time weather information and other internet provided technologies—storm tracking is a case in point in the last 24 hours—to protect their livestock, their crops and their very livelihood.

We rely on internet connectivity to pay at local stores, and even stalls at farmers markets may take cards more than cash now; they have their little squares. At times they’ve had to stand with one leg facing towards the breeze to try and get connectivity. It needs to be reliable. They rely on payment systems operating all the time, not just some of the time.

Back at home, it’s not just one person online, of course. It’s often mum and dad in the lounge room perhaps watching television or potentially doing office work, and their kids in the bedrooms, studying or video calling their friends.

We especially need reliable phone and internet in times of emergencies, as other speakers have pointed to—something that people in rural and regional Australia know so deeply. Only yesterday those terrible storms and bushfires sweeping across Victoria heightened the awareness of the dependency that we have on internet that works. A survey by the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network, ACCAN, a fantastic organisation, found that 88 per cent of respondents expect their phone and internet services to work during emergencies like bushfires and floods.

In every Australian household, and especially in country areas, we’re relying on the internet more than ever. It is an essential service. But, with so many households in my electorate relying on dodgy NBN connections or snail-pace ADSL lines, still, clearly regional Australia is getting left behind, and we can’t allow that to be the case. I hear from constituents whose ADSL lines are flooded at the first sign of rain, meaning their home internet is offline more than it’s online. I hear from constituents whose only option, if they want any home internet at all, is to buy expensive aftermarket satellite hardware. I’ve heard from a constituent whose job was put at risk because they simply couldn’t rely on a consistent connection through the day.

In Mansfield, businesses are having to adjust their schedule based on when the internet connection is fast enough to handle videoconferences with their clients. In Kinglake, in the south of my electorate, Pam Lawless lives just off the main road, but NBN Co says it has no plans to connect her to the network. Despite living less than two kilometres from the outskirts of metropolitan Melbourne—it’s extraordinary, really—the best that NBN Co can suggest is that she look into satellite options. She finds it frustrating that, despite living and working on the fringes of a major city, she and her neighbours feel like they’re being left behind.

That’s why in 2022 I introduced my Faster Internet for Regional Australia Bill. This bill would have required the NBN and internet service providers to do better by regional Australia. My bill would have required internet providers to provide average speeds of 25 megabits per second all day, every day. It would have ensured regional customers aren’t waiting a month to get connected, when people in the cities get connected in a day. Even where people have a NBN connection, there is no guarantee they’ll get what they pay for. Broadband providers often advertise speeds which do not match what customers actually receive. The standard of 19 days to provide a new service in regional Australia and up to three days to fix a network fault is simply too slow to attract businesses to come to regional areas with confidence. It’s clear to me that the NBN rollout has not been delivering for regional Australia, and we have to keep on this; we have to make sure it does. It’s very encouraging to see the government moving on this issue; it truly is.

In addition to this bill, I note new industry standards on how telcos manage financial hardship. So many families are truly doing it tough now, and paying these bills is a real hardship. Ensuring those trying to balance their budgets are not disconnected from study, work or just staying in touch with family shows the government can listen and design fairer processes for people doing it tough, and I congratulate them for that.

The School Student Broadband Initiative has also been so valuable in the past few years, and I’m glad to see the government recommit for another two years. It’s really important, and I thank them for continuing this program that was started by the coalition—so credit where credit is due across the board. The program provides families with free NBN access who are otherwise struggling to afford it on their own. With over 40 per cent of beneficiaries from this program coming from the regions, this is a commonsense policy for ensuring our kids in rural and regional Australia don’t miss out on their education. We’ve seen horrifying data in the last few days indicating that rural and regional kids are behind, and we cannot reinforce that disadvantage by not having access for every single child to this fundamental and essential service. Unfortunately, the very need for this program shows that rural and regional Australia is still missing out on world-class connectivity.

Another positive development is the new special access undertaking—or SAU—which was finalised only last year. The SAU expands the powers of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the ACCC, to oversee and regulate the service standards of NBN across Australia. This is a really important part of making sure internet users get fast, reliable and affordable internet. When this SAU expires in 2040 it’s expected that NBN Co will make more than $100 billion from consumers—so they need to deliver on the promise. It’s only fair that customers are getting what they pay for, which is why the SAU requires NBN Co to consult with consumer advocacy groups to make sure the standards are actually working. To make consultation truly work, I’d like to see the government fund a communications consumer organisation to lead engagement with NBN Co and ensure the interests of all Australians, including and especially those in the regions, are well represented.

The SAU also means the ACCC can now oversee and regulate the NBN’s minimum service performance benchmarks. For anyone listening at home, it’s acronym city here! I apologise for that; there needs to be a glossary of terms at the end of this speech! But it underscores that this is a complex but critical area of public policy. It is really important that these minimum service standards improve because, right now, they’re just not good enough for people living in regional, rural and remote Australia. Internet connectivity especially continues to be a daily challenge; it really does.

I will continue to advocate—and the minister knows that—for a better NBN for the regions, whether that be through mechanisms like the special access undertaking from NBN Co, the universal service obligation or the guarantee that a person will receive phone service—that’s under review right now. I’ll continue to work with local councils and with the Indi Telecommunications Advisory Group, or ITAG, which the member for Riverina was just referring to. The extraordinary success that Indi has had in being funded for mobile telecommunications towers isn’t an accident; that is a very deliberate collaborative approach across my electorate, with nine local governments and me working together to put in top-quality applications to government funds and to do everything we can as a community to identify where there are problems and work with government—whoever’s in government—to try and get them fixed.

I’m very, very proud that through ITAG we were able to secure funding for key NBN infrastructure just a couple of months ago, such as the more than $2 million announced last year to establish fibre to the premises NBN in the tiny little Alpine village of Harrietville as part of the Regional Connectivity Program. Those people are absolutely delighted. They’ve waited a long time. I urge the government to continue funding this program in the next budget—please, do that—to make sure we can continue and finish the job of connecting regional, rural and remote areas to the internet.

When the NBN isn’t available, I want to see better satellite and mobile broadband solutions because my constituents are tired of hearing that because they live in a regional area they must accept the NBN may not make it to them. It’s not good enough. We must make sure that, if it is to be satellite, it’s absolutely top class. This issue is so important for the development of the regions. We can’t let them fall behind the cities because they can’t connect. It’s absolutely critical to my electorate because it’s a disaster prone area. I know I’m not the only one in that situation. The Black Summer bushfires, the Black Saturday bushfires 10 years before that, flooding, catastrophic storms and so on absolutely underscore the critical nature of this. This is not just for a Netflix connection, even though I’m the first to want one of those too! People rely on phone and internet services to keep themselves and their families safe. They just do. I know the minister knows that.

Throughout my career as a nurse, a midwife, an academic researcher and an MP, I have learnt that you don’t stop until the job is done. That’s my message to the government. The reforms in this bill will benefit consumers across Australia, but there is much more to be done before we can say with confidence that all Australians have access to reliable, affordable, fast internet.

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