Standing up for Canberra

Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Submarine Cable Protection) Bill 2013

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Submarine Cable Protection) Bill 2013. For many, I am sure, submarine cables may not be the most captivating topic—but it should be, particularly when we think about the important role that they play in connecting us with the rest of the world.

Submarine cables are how Australia connects to the rest of the world. They allow us to overcome the tyranny of distance, which has so defined our past. It is probably under-appreciated, but it is submarine cables that have enabled Australia to be the vibrant, intelligent and diverse nation that we are today. Submarine cables carry the bulk of Australia's international voice and data traffic. They are quite literally what allows us to communicate and to connect with the rest of the world in real time.

In preparation for this speech, I was looking at a global map of submarine cables, and it was nothing short of a thing of beauty. The colourful lines connecting the most far flung stretches of earth could have been aeroplane or shipping routes. But the reality is that they are something far less visible that most Australians are blissfully unaware of.

Australia's geographic remoteness, the fact that we are an island nation, means that submarine cables are of vital importance to us. And in an age where communications infrastructure defines our productivity, our success and our future, submarine cables are all the more important. Damage to these cables can have a significant economic impact. Damage can easily cause service disruption. When damage occurs, it is overwhelmingly caused by something man-made. Around 70 per cent of all cable faults are caused by fishing and anchoring in depths of less than 200 metres. In Australia, where we depend on submarine cables to connect to the global telecommunications network and engage in the global digital economy society, the risks associated with cable damage are serious and significant.

This bill, which allows for the better protection of Australia's submarine cables, is therefore a very worthy one. It streamlines some of the processes to provide protection to these cables; to include submarine cables that might only link points in Australia, such as those that cross Bass Strait; and to ensure the consistency of the laws with international obligations. When those opposite persist in speaking of the need for small government, this bill is a timely reminder that it is schemes like the submarine cable protection regime that demonstrate why government regulation is important.

This bill was originally drafted by the Gillard government, and it is pleasing to see that it has maintained its bipartisan support and has been introduced by the Abbott government. The reason the bill has bipartisan support is that both sides of this House recognise that, in the 21st century, communications infrastructure is critical. Both sides of the House recognise that it is communications infrastructure that will define our economic success in the future. Those opposite recognise the need for interconnection, the need for connection and the need for connectedness. This is why it is so puzzling, so absolutely dumbfounding, that they have chosen to significantly downgrade, cut, the most important communications infrastructure project of the 21st century, the National Broadband Network.

The amendments moved by the shadow minister point out this inconsistency, this disconnect. The government has praised the rollout of international undersea fibre optic cable for being forward-looking but is not adopting the same approach to the rollout of fibre optic cable on land. The National Broadband Network is the biggest and most important infrastructure project in Australia right now, and Labor believes it should be done right. That means fibre to the premises delivering speeds of up to 100 megabits per second to every Australian home, every Australian school and every Australian workplace where that is possible.

Those opposite agree that fibre is the endgame, that fibre to the premises is where we all need to get to eventually; they just do not want to do the necessary work to get it done now. Their plan is to build fibre to a box in the street and then use the old and failing copper network to connect to homes and businesses, delivering maximum speeds of just 25 megabits per second. If anyone wants fibre to the home badly enough, they can simply pay for it themselves—assuming they have a spare $5,000 sitting in their kitty—and then, in ten or 15 years time, when they realise that we actually need fibre to the premises, some future government can simply deal with the mammoth task of rebuilding the network. It is that simple, according to those opposite.

The NBN policy of the Abbott government is nonsensical. It may save some costs now, but the longterm costs of their plan will far outstrip those of Labor's plan. There is a saying: 'Do not put off until tomorrow what you can do today.' But obviously those opposite have never heard it, because putting off until tomorrow what should be done now is their modus operandi. It is how they are responding to climate change— do nothing now and let our children deal with the consequences in the future. And it is how they are planning on building the NBN—do half the job now and let our children deal with the rest. It is simply not good enough. Labor want to do this right, and we want to do it right the first time.

I would now like to talk about the effect the coalition's dud policy is having in my electorate. Some suburbs in the neighbouring electorate of Fraser were lucky enough to be high on the NBN rollout list. Right now, Canberrans in Casey, Ngunnawal, Amaroo, Gungahlin, Palmerston and Franklin, and businesses in Mitchell, are accessing the fastest internet speeds in the country—and they love it. In fact, these northern Canberra suburbs have had the highest NBN take-up rate in the country. There are schools in the north of Canberra who have their Japanese classes taught via video link from Japan and there are Canberrans who can access a medical specialist without leaving their homes. Those lucky northern Canberrans are realising the potential of the NBN every day.

However, just 20 kilometres south, in my electorate of Canberra, things are not so rosy. Large parts of Canberra were on the cusp of receiving the NBN prior to the election. Construction was due to begin in Kambah, Wanniassa, Mawson, Farrer and surrounding suburbs in September this year. However, when the coalition took office that construction was halted. The coalition has created a digital divide here in Canberra. While Canberrans north of the lake are already reaping the rewards that the NBN brings, those south of the lake now do not know if they ever will. By stopping the NBN mid-rollout, the coalition has created digital divides like this all over the country. Houses on one side of a road have fibre to the premises, while houses on the other side will have to pay up to $5,000 for the privilege. I wonder if the coalition has properly thought through the ramifications of these digital divides.

However, just 20 kilometres south, in my electorate of Canberra, things are not so rosy. Large parts of Canberra were on the cusp of receiving the NBN prior to the election. Construction was due to begin in Kambah, Wanniassa, Mawson, Farrer and surrounding suburbs in September this year. However, when the coalition took office that construction was halted. The coalition has created a digital divide here in Canberra. While Canberrans north of the lake are already reaping the rewards that the NBN brings, those south of the lake now do not know if they ever will. By stopping the NBN mid-rollout, the coalition has created digital divides like this all over the country. Houses on one side of a road have fibre to the premises, while houses on the other side will have to pay up to $5,000 for the privilege. I wonder if the coalition has properly thought through the ramifications of these digital divides.

Why, for example, would a business choose to set up operations in the industrial suburb of Hume, in my electorate of Canberra, when they could set up in the industrial suburb of Mitchell, in the electorate of Fraser, where they will have fibre to the premises? Why would a parent send their child to the local school, which does not have fibre connected, when the school in the next suburb does? It is not so far-fetched to imagine that this digital divide could have an impact on real estate prices. Real estate ads in the future could read: 'Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, double lockup garage and fibre to the premises.' With this digital divide, some people on one side of the road might have to pay up to $5,000 to connect fibre to their home, when a house on the other side of the road that they could potentially be looking at already has fibre to the home.

The coalition's policy is not just inferior to Labor's, it is also inequitable. It simply is not fair. Australians want a fibre to the premises NBN. As the shadow minister said today, Australians certainly did not vote for the coalition because of its NBN policy. In fact, they probably voted for the coalition in spite of its NBN policy. Just last week, a constituent of mine, Stephen Kelly, delivered a petition to me with 270,640 signatures calling for a fibre to the premises NBN. Labor is listening to Australians on this issue—why isn't the government? Japan, South Korea, Singapore and New Zealand are all investing in fibre to the premises—why aren't we? This government is putting Australians at a disadvantage. We are being left behind with a second-class, second-rate broadband network.

There is bipartisan support for the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Submarine Cable Protection) Bill 2013 because both sides recognise the importance of communications infrastructure and connectedness. Prime Minister Abbott has promised to be the infrastructure Prime Minister and he has promised to build the infrastructure Australia needs for the 21st century. Why then is he walking away from the most important infrastructure project of the 21st century? It is simply inexplicable.

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