Better telecommunications needed for the South West

February 7, 2012

Ms MARINO (Forrest-Opposition Whip) (21:19):

I rise to speak on the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency Bill 2011.

As a regional and rural member of parliament, I well understand the importance of the universal service obligation.

It guarantees that vital, often life-saving, basic telephone services are always available to people, irrespective of where they live.

For four years in numerous forums I have said that the south-west of Western Australia needs better communication services, including improved mobile phone and broadband services-and it certainly needs it now.

This bill before the House establishes the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency and provides the framework for the new USO system.

The USO is a key component of Australian telecommunications.

Every Australian family and business needs access to basic communication services at a reasonable price. It is the USO which guarantees that this basic need is met.

It is especially important to note that the USO primarily benefits residents in regional and remote Australia.

For residents, such as those in my electorate of Forrest, access to a basic phone service is vital because other communication options are often not available or affordable.

The isolation of small regional communities and individual farms means that these people are especially reliant on communications to conduct business and even to provide safety and security-there are often no immediate neighbours whose door you can knock on for assistance.

Because the provision of basic phone services to regional and rural areas is often not economically viable, the subsidisation of such services is needed to ensure telephone services are accessible and affordable.

The coalition strongly supports the USO and recognises the vital role the USO system plays in keeping regional Australia connected.

The government has already signed long-term contracts with Telstra to deliver the USO as part of its backroom deal to prop up the NBN.

In fact, the cost of the USO actually increases from $160.5 million per annum to $340 million per annum-although the description does not seem to cover internet access, from what I can see.

But contracts with Telstra are not publicly available, so we have no idea whether these contracts offer value for money either to the taxpayer or to telecommunications users.

Currently the Australian Communications and Media Authority oversees the USO and collects the USO levy.

Instead of utilising the existing capacity within the current system, the government has decided to create yet another new bureaucracy-the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency-with a new army of public servants coming in at a start-up administration cost of $5 million per annum.

Like the new army of public servants servicing the government’s carbon tax and health bureaucracies, this new agency will have little incentive to keep costs down.

This is particularly relevant as government funding for TUSMA is fixed and any increase in costs will be borne by the telecommunications industry and, ultimately, consumers.

Submissions to the Senate inquiry referred to the lack of, and narrow scope of, industry consultation and insufficient consultation. Macquarie Telecom’s submission stated:

At the very least operators who under the Reform Bills are obliged to financially contribute to the cost of funding universal services should have had an opportunity to participate in the development of the Policy.

Why didn’t those operators have such an opportunity?

To provide an incentive for the government to keep TUSMA’s administrative costs in check, the opposition has moved an amendment requiring ACMA’s budget for a given year to be reduced by an amount equivalent to the administrative budget of TUSMA.

This amendment is intended to ensure that TUSMA’s costs are not duplicated within ACMA.

We are also very committed to ensuring that Australians in regional areas will continue to have reliable access to standard telephone services.

To that end, we have moved an amendment to require the minister to obtain and secure a favourable independent review of the quality of standard telephone services before being permitted to roll back the USO regulations.

This provision will ensure that an independent expert certifies that standard telephone services are of sufficient quality to justify rolling back USO regulations and will add an additional safety net within the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999 to ensure that the USO regulations are not rolled back too soon.

The other issue I want to raise is based on the fact that in my part of the world my constituents know that the government actually promised broadband within four years, by 2013.

In my electorate there are a number of areas that receive substandard communication services and I have been working to get better broadband sooner into Forrest, as have those of us on our side.

The south-west of WA should have been a priority for any broadband upgrades and it is an insult to many south-west people that the Labor government is prioritising fibre rollout in metropolitan areas which already have broadband access when these services in ADSL2 are not available at all for many areas in regional and rural Australia.

To add insult to injury for my constituents, the $11 billion that the Labor government has paid Telstra to scrap its network would fund not only a major upgrade of broadband but also the majority of the economic and social infrastructure needed in the south-west.

Even worse, I have repeatedly requested a time frame, as my constituents will help pay for the rollout. When I have asked when it is coming to the south-west the minister fails to answer that question.

So I am asking once again: when will it be rolled out?

The Labor government have been in office for nearly five years.

In 2007, they promised us a national broadband network, to be finished by 2013.

Five years on, where is it in my electorate?

Businesses and individuals need certainty.

They need to know exactly which areas will receive fibre to the premises and which areas will be serviced by wireless services and who will be connected by satellite-in my electorate very important.

These key questions remain unanswered, to the intense shame of both the minister and the government.

The NBN plans show that a number of smaller regional centres currently accessing ADSL will be migrated to wireless services.

This will see a centre like Northcliffe in the south-west, currently receiving a 20 megabits per second download speed on ADSL2, drop to a maximum of 12 megabits per second delivered by NBN satellite-to say nothing of the latency issues!

And we are yet to hear exactly how each town and community-places like Nannup and Balingup for instance-will be affected and what proportion of the NBN will be strung out on overhead cables.

The south-west has experienced at least five major fires already this summer.

The NBN rollout is on a 10-year never-never plan and I understand that currently the NBN has connected only 4,000 households. The south-west might have to wait another decade and technology will have moved on in that time.

We already know that the NBN is behind schedule and missing key deadlines-the CEO has actually said so.

Without a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis or evidence of commercial viability of this project, the government’s NBN is delivering delays and uncertainty at a massive cost of $50 billion and still counting. The total cost is yet to be determined while at the same time the government is doing everything it can to avoid scrutiny and accountability.

The community still has great concern that a government plagued by mismanagement and incompetence will be able to deliver this project on time and on budget, although we do not even know what the budget is.

In the Telecommunications Journal of Australia, RBS telecommunications analyst Ian Martin published a paper showing the NBN will have to increase revenue per customer by 5.7 per cent a year to meet its corporate plan.

For those on lower incomes, higher prices will deepen the divide between the digital haves and have-nots. The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network have made some statements as well on this issue and they are also very concerned, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The SPEAKER: Madam Deputy Speaker?

Ms MARINO: Mr Speaker, I am sorry; I did not see that you were now in the chair. I apologise. ACCAN warned in October:

People who have a problem affording the internet now will probably continue to do so. We do not want to increase the digital divide for people on low incomes.

NBN Co.’s plan to hit broadband consumers in their hip pocket for the next 30 years by asking the Australian Communications and Media Authority for the right to lift prices on all of its services, except one, by five per cent above inflation every year was recently exposed by the coalition.

In October NBN Co. backed down, but it still has not explained its pricing strategy or updated its corporate plan.

I support the amendments that have been moved by the coalition in relation to this legislation. As I have said previously, this is of great concern in my electorate.

As we know, it is a never-never plan. I have frequently argued for better broadband in my electorate and I believe that under the coalition’s plan that would have been delivered by this time.

When the Labor government came to power in 2007 it promised to deliver better broadband by 2013. It is now 2012 and people in my electorate have not seen any improvement in broadband.