Better Regional Broadband

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL (Lyons) (12:20): I rise to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2019 and cognate bill, and the shadow minister's amendment. A reliable broadband network has become critical for the majority of Australians, as the member for Gellibrand has noted. We rely on the internet for work, for banking, for communication, for leisure and for shopping. It has become a vital, intertwined, ingrained part of our connection to our community and to the wider world. Unfortunately, too many people in Australia, especially in regional Australia, do not have the same ability as those in the city to enjoy the benefits of the internet—what we call the digital divide. Unfortunately, under this government the divide has become wider, not narrower, as a result of the lack of telecommunications infrastructure and regional black spots. More needs to be done to ensure that every Australian who wants to access the internet can have it.

I've spoken many times in this place on the government's record on the NBN. The NBN is a national telecommunications infrastructure program, which was instituted by Labor, and which, as the member for Gellibrand has noted, the then opposition leader, Tony Abbott, instructed his shadow communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to 'demolish' if they were to come to government. It is one of the few promises they have sought to deliver, because that is indeed what they have done to the NBN. They have demolished the foundations of what should be one of this country's greatest infrastructure builds. They have absolutely smashed it. I will come to the how of that later.

The legislation before the House today does two key things. It legislates certainty that all premises in Australia can continue to access broadband beyond the NBN rollout. It legislates a guarantee similar to the telecommunications guarantee we've legislated, which ensures that every Australian has access to a telephone line. This does the same for broadband. This gives it certainty. Labor supports this. We always have. These bills also, perhaps controversially, introduce a telecommunications levy of $7 per month onto the bills of households and businesses that get their broadband from non-NBN networks. This cost, of course, will go to the wholesalers, but, as we know, they'll pass that cost on to their customers—so, $84 a year in higher internet fees for people who get their internet from non-NBN providers. Labor is supporting that—with some reluctance I must say. We know we need to support this, to be a constructive opposition. The NBN Co business fundamentals demand it because of the changes that this government has wrought on NBN Co. Under Labor, this levy would not have happened—this internet tax would not have happened, because we had baked-in cross-subsidisation internally. We would not have required this. In his speech, the member for Gellibrand, with his deep background in telecommunications, explained, perhaps much more eloquently than I can, the reasons for this. He explained that we would not have done this because we had baked-in cross-subsidisation beforehand. But, under this government, there is internal subsidisation, and now they are going to slug consumers as well.

The truth of the matter is that there needs to be a legislative standard in Australia where we guarantee universal access to broadband, no matter where you live, particularly as we near the point where NBN Co is likely to be privatised. We need to ensure that coverage is not motivated by making money but is instead about ensuring there is a comprehensive network that ensures accessibility, no matter where you live. I represent an electorate that is remote and regional and I get complaints every day, still, about people's lack of access to the NBN, whether it is slow service or the like. I've got a range of what the government calls multi-technology-mix customers in my electorate, with fibre to the node. I've got constituents with fibre to the premises, which was rolled out under Labor. I don't get any complaints from them, let me tell you. I don't get any complaints from people in fibre-to-the-premises areas. I do get complaints from people in fibre-to-the-node areas, because the copper's degraded or they're too far from the exchange, or because of the slow service. I certainly get complaints from people on the fixed-wireless service—the towers—because essentially there are too many people on those towers, and of course internet use has increased so much over even the past five years, with 4K coming in, and HD, and people are streaming services and businesses have higher use of data.

Businesses and homes that are on fixed-wireless towers are just crunching the availability of hardware on those towers, and what we are seeing is the constant need to upgrade fixed wireless, and it just can't keep up with the demand, because this government has underinvested in fixed wireless. The fact that they secretly took $200 million out of the fixed-wireless network is an absolute disgrace—the shortcomings of the fixed-wireless network. If any aspect of the NBN system needs more investment, it's fixed wireless. Yet they took $200 million out of it and didn't want to tell the public about it until it came up in Senate estimates. I think a Tasmanian senator, Senator Anne Urquhart, had a principal role in that, and hats off to her for winkling that out of the NBN.

There remains plenty to do with the NBN. Under this government NBN speeds in this country have slipped, to see Australia now 68th in the world. We are behind countries like Kazakhstan and like Cape Verde, in Africa. Just think: Australian tourists go overseas, to developing nations, and get much better service in those countries than they do here in Australia. It is an absolute indictment on this government's lack of regard for telecommunications and particularly the NBN. In what should have been a game changer in terms of accessibility and speed, the NBN promises have been a disappointing disaster—another demonstration of how the Liberals simply have not grasped the opportunities that modern telecommunications can deliver, and not just for households and consumers. Sometimes as politicians we get wrapped up talking about movie streaming and leisure for people in their homes. But there is the cost to the economy, to business, of not having a fully serviced NBN with fibre at the heart of it. It is a terrible shame.

As the member for Gellibrand mentioned, in 2007, when Labor came to power under Kevin Rudd, the average internet speed was two megabits per second. That's unthinkable now. Yet I remember the then opposition leader, Tony Abbott, saying, 'We'll never need more than five or six'—I think he said five or six, or some ridiculously slow speed; that we'd never need more than that. And we've well eclipsed it. On that side of the chamber they regarded Labor's then promise of universal access to be 'delusional'. That's what they called it—delusional. They just didn't get it. So, from 1996 to 2007, when they were in government, they did nothing, as the internet was taking off around the world and the importance of the internet became more clear to people. I was working in the media at that time, and I saw firsthand how the internet became more integral to our newspapers' operations, first for information gathering and then for sending pages via the internet to the printer. That's how quickly it developed. Yet over the period of that government they did absolutely nothing in terms of fixing the internet infrastructure for this nation.

So, in 2007, Kevin Rudd came along, saw what needed to happen and, from a standing start of nothing, the NBN was created. Of course, these things take time to develop. The genesis of the NBN took time. So that got underway. There were a few hiccups along the way, with asbestos being found in the Telstra pits. A lot of regulatory changes were required. Then Tony Abbott came along as the opposition leader and ordered Malcolm Turnbull to demolish Labor's NBN, because he wanted to make a political point. Frankly, Tony Abbott just didn't get it. I can sort of forgive Tony Abbott, to some degree, because he literally did not understand the importance of the internet. But I won't forgive Malcolm Turnbull, because he did understand. He did understand the importance of the internet, but he was more interested in his own political future than the future of the nation. He knew how important fibre was going to be at the heart of the internet. We know that he personally invested in fibre overseas, whereas here at home he was quite happy to foist upon the nation a substandard multitechnology mix that had, at its heart, 19th century copper.

So they didn't get it then. Over the period of this government, what we've seen happen with the NBN is a complete underinvestment—an absolute underinvestment in technology and an underinvestment in political will to give Australians the internet and the broadband that they deserve. In remote and regional Australia the digital divide is just getting worse and worse. Under Labor, regional areas were the first to get fibre to the premises: places like Sorell in Tasmania, my state, and the town of Smithton, places you wouldn't have thought would be the first to get the latest technology available. That's where fibre-to-the-premises internet was rolled out. We did that for this reason: we said that the regions deserve to have the same internet speeds and quality as the cities do.

I think people in this country are used to the idea that, whenever something new and flash comes along, it's always the cities that get it first. It's always Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. They tend to get the best stuff first. That's where most people live, so they get the flash stuff. Labor in 2007 said: 'Hang on. We want to close the digital divide. Let's give it to the regions first. Let's make sure the regions get the best internet, because the cities have got pretty passable ADSL at the moment. They've got pretty good internet. They can get by for a while, but those people in the regions have nothing. So let's put the good internet out there.'

Labor was howled down by those opposite. Those opposite, who claim to represent regional Australia, were the first to howl it down. They said: 'This makes no business sense. This costs so much more.' But what we have found out, of course, is that their claims about Labor's NBN costing so much more than what their system would cost is an absolute lie. They have foisted upon this nation an NBN of different technologies—copper based, cable, you know, all sorts of technologies that they've rolled out—which are substandard, certainly substandard compared to what Labor would have introduced. Labor would have had 93 per cent of the population getting full fibre. Yet their NBN has ended up costing about the same as what Labor's would have cost. The Labor NBN would have come in at around $50 billion. That's exactly where we've landed with this mob, with what is even now a substandard mix. No sooner is the NBN starting to be finished, four years behind schedule and $20 billion over budget, than they're already having to upgrade. They're already having to go back into the pits and renew the copper. They're already having to fix things up. Homes and businesses that are on fibre to the node are finding that it's not servicing their needs, so they're having to call in the technicians and say, 'Look, we need better internet.' They're having to pay through the nose to get the better fibre to the premises. The costs of the substandard internet that those opposite have foisted upon this nation will be much greater than if they'd simply continued with Labor's fibre-to-the-premises rollout.

It's one of the greatest infrastructure failures in the history of this nation—how far this government has put this country behind, not just for households but for the economy and the opportunity costs for the regions. Businesses are not able to expand in the regions, because they are dependent on good internet. They have to go to the cities because that's the only place where you can get the fibre to the premises that they need to compete in the world. It's a litany of failures on that side. We support the bill before the House, but we also have the amendment, just to point out some of those failures.

I want to quickly mention this broadband levy. As I said, it is a Liberal government broadband tax. It's a $7-per-month tax on internet services. It will impact consumers. They're levying against the providers, but it will impact consumers and businesses. It will especially impact people in the regions and first home buyers. They say they are doing this to protect regional broadband. If they were really interested in protecting regional broadband then they wouldn't have stripped out $200 million from fixed wireless, which was an absolute disgrace. And they've done nothing, absolutely done nothing, as NBN Co has overloaded the fixed wireless towers in regional areas, leading to slow speeds and congestions.

We support these bills, but this government should not escape the deserved odium for what they have done to what should be one of the greatest infrastructure achievements of this country, which they have just demolished—in their own words—and turned it into an absolute disgrace.