Standing up for Canberra

Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer)

I've spoken many, many times in this chamber about the experiences of my wonderful community here in Canberra with the roll out of the National Broadband Network under this government.

I've shown that for many, particularly in the south-east corner of the electorate of Canberra—in Tuggeranong, Theodore, Calwell, Richardson and Macarthur—high-speed broadband is a pipe dream, whether it's under an existing telecommunications provider or under the NBN.

For many Canberrans, the roll out of the NBN means that nothing will change. The majority of homes will continue to rely on unreliable, second-rate copper. The slow speeds that I've spoken about so many times in this chamber and in the House—that I've demonstrated time and again—will continue unabated. That is my major concern. These changes will not make anything better, because we will continue to rely on unreliable second-rate copper. Between 15 and 20 kilometres from this very Parliament House, in the nation's capital, in 2018, there are constituents of mine, members of my community, who are getting less than one megabit per second upload and download speeds. Less than one megabit per second—what does that actually mean? Apart from the fact that getting on the internet is an extremely excruciating and frustrating, tear-your-hair-out experience, it also means that members of my community, particularly in that south-east area of Tuggeranong, cannot do their homework from home. I have members of my community who have to go to their friend's house in another part of the electorate, or across the lake, to be able to do their homework. I have members in my community who can't set up and operate small businesses from home, because their internet service is so appalling. They have to go to the expense of hiring office space throughout Canberra to be able to get a decent internet connection so they can run a business. I have members of my community who have to stand on their garage roof to get reception. We're coming into an interesting cool patch; I think winter has finally arrived in the nation's capital. We have had a lovely kind of Indian summer, one would say, here in the last few weeks, but I think that, come tomorrow—and particularly on Friday, where we'll get a low of six and a top of seven—things are going to be interesting for that poor person standing on the roof of her garage trying to get internet connection.

I've raised these myriad concerns with the minister and let him know the issues faced by my community that are impeding their access to education, small business opportunities and what I call active citizenry. The constituents of my electorate are having their opportunities, choices and options in life impeded by this government's second-rate unreliable copper. The minister's response has been:

If they're on the NBN and not getting the speed we said you would then the fault's at their end—it's not with the NBN.

Or:

It must be the way the house is wired.

People who are financially strapped and can't afford to participate in the NBN's technology choice program are going to have to foot the bill to have the copper line to their house checked out, or to have the wiring in their house looked over or reconfigured. Goodbye to any personal income tax relief that this government is promising, particularly with recommendations like this!

It beggars belief, but there has been no acknowledgement of this from the other side. Hardly any of my colleagues on the other side have spoken about the actual experiences of people in their communities dealing with the NBN, other telecommunications providers, second-rate unreliable copper, and frustration with the rollout. Much of Canberra wasn't even on the rollout map until this time last year. When we finally got on the rollout map—hurrah! We were so much looking forward to it—we just kept getting moved to the right. The rollout that was meant to start this year has been moved to next year. The rollout that was meant to start last year has been moved into 2020. It is a case of 'be careful what you wish for'. There has been not a peep from my colleagues on the other side of the chamber about the experiences of people in their communities. How many people in their communities are in the same position as mine? I would say thousands, if not tens of thousands. I cannot believe that it has all been happy days for their constituents. Many Canberrans feel nothing but despair with the current rollout, the lack of transparency, the continued delays and the non-answers to questions.

It's for these reasons that I welcome the opportunity to speak about these two bills, the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2017 and the Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2017, and support Labor's proposed amendment. These bills work in conjunction with each other to set the scene for Australia's broadband future. Together the bills provide legislative certainty that all premises in Australia can access high-speed broadband infrastructure beyond the current NBN rollout. The current telecommunications regulatory framework established the USO, which ensured all Australians had access to a standard telephone service; yet, as technology evolves, more and more people are shifting away from having standard telephone services in their homes. How many people do you know who still use their landline? This means that the relevance of the USO is decreasing and something needs to be done to recognise the increasing reliance of Australians on internet connectivity.

Labor recognised this when it first designed its NBN policy, and the competition and consumer bill goes further and establishes a statutory infrastructure provider regime. It will ensure all Australian premises are guaranteed access to high-speed broadband through either NBN Co or an alternative infrastructure provider. The effect of this legislative change is that it will give certainty to customers about obligations for the supply of broadband beyond the initial NBN rollout. It is a level of certainty that consumers would have had with the original NBN rollout under Labor but were sorely missing until now. The bill enshrines in legislation a universal right to broadband access, a principle established by Labor when the NBN was first announced, a universal right that's been eroded over time by this government's inept management of the NBN rollout. It's taken those opposite many years to come to the party and to sign up to this principle, but in the end they had no choice. The Australian public gave them no choice. Labor is proud of having fought for this and proud of having reached this point. This is fundamentally about equality of opportunity in the digital age. It will ensure Australians can access high-speed broadband irrespective of where they live or work. But there remains much more to do. The certainty will need to be paid for.

Schedule 4 of this bill proposes to apply a new broadband tax of $7.10 per month to services on non-NBN networks. This charge is due to increase to $7.80 by 2021. These bills also introduce a telecommunications levy that will add $84 per year to the bills of up to 400,000 consumers and businesses on non-NBN networks. It's telling that in the week of the federal budget the Turnbull government is seeking to introduce a new broadband tax that is expected to raise nearly half a billion dollars over the next decade.

In 2009 the then Labor government decided to build an NBN that would extend universal coverage of broadband to regional and remote Australia, funded through a universal wholesale pricing regime. This meant that NBN users in the cities would help cross-subsidise high-cost services in the regions. There was no contemplation of having a universal wholesale pricing regime and a levy. It was one or the other, not both. Yet now the government wants to supplement the internal cross-subsidy with a new internet charge. So I ask: what has changed? The cost of fixed wireless and the satellite network has not changed. The cost is effectively what was forecast. The key change has been the abandonment of fibre on the pretext that Australia would get a much cheaper, albeit inferior, multi-technology mix. But, as we know, we haven't got that. We have a more expensive $49 billion multi-technology mix that costs more and does less.

This inferior multi-technology mix, according to NBN Co's own analysis, will cost $200 million per annum in steady state to maintain and operate, and generate $300 million less per annum in revenue relative to a fibre-to-the-premises network. That is a $500 million earnings gap. The copper NBN looks increasingly exposed to competition from 5G. This levy is the Prime Minister's internet tax. He owns it. It's come about as a result of his cost blowouts. It's come about because in 2013 he encouraged other companies to deploy networks and to compete directly against the NBN, with full knowledge that this would undercut the NBN business model.

In seeking to undermine the NBN business model, the Prime Minister was letting down regional Australia. He put his own interests above the public interest. Let this be a lesson for the Prime Minister. Again, be careful what you wish for. The irony is the Prime Minister now wants to tax Australians who are on these competing networks, networks he once encouraged. It is for the Prime Minister to explain why people on NBN fibre networks will eventually have to pay for his poor judgement and his failure in policy areas.

This levy will impact people in Canberra. It will impact people who are on iiNet's VDSL network. Labor believe that this levy is regrettable but we won't be opposing it outright. We are where we are, and ultimately it is the Prime Minister who owns this levy. It is his government that has left the economics of the NBN in a difficult state. Evidence about the NBN is in. Complaints to the TIO have increased by 160 per cent. That is four times the level of complaints about the finance and banking industry. The decision to use mainly copper technology for the fixed-line NBN being rolled out means a second-rate service.

In September 2017 the New South Wales Business Chamber published a survey of small business experiences. Small businesses reported that switching to the NBN was costing them an average of $9,000—this is small business—through delays, disruptions and loss of sales. Of great concern, 43 per cent of the 850 businesses surveyed by the New South Wales Business Chamber reported either being dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the NBN. This is nearly three times the 15 per cent dissatisfaction rate claimed by the government. They're claiming 15 per cent, yet it's 43 per cent. A spokesman said that the Business Chamber was 'stunned by the responses'. This comes on the back of COSBOA saying:

When people think NBN, they think fast internet but then they sign up and find they are getting slower speeds than they were before. We were told it would be so fast it would shock us. It has shocked us but not because it’s fast.

People in my community are reporting little difference from the speeds they were getting on ADSL—and the response from the minister to these complaints? It was:

It's all about co-existence. It will be better when everyone has moved to NBN.

Will it, Minister?

The Department of Communications and the Arts confirmed that there is no planned upgrade path for the copper NBN. They told the Joint Standing Committee on the NBN:

As NBN has previously outlined, there is no current plan to upgrade specific sections of the network.

The failure of the copper NBN to deliver adequate speeds and reliability has undermined the whole business case for the NBN—and the minister's response? It was:

… that's an issue for the retail service providers. They haven't paid enough of the CVC charge.

Ultimately, it is the Prime Minister who owns this levy that the government is trying to introduce this week. It is up to him to explain why the government wants to give big business an $80 billion tax cut while introducing a new telecommunications charge that will add $84 to the annual broadband bill of impacted households on non-NBN networks.

Australians know that, when it comes to broadband, only Labor will be there to consistently deliver on their behalf. But much more needs to be done in this sector.