NBN is an investment in Australia's digital future (14/09/2011)

nbn-fibre-optic-300.jpgI was a member of the Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications, which conducted this inquiry, together with my colleague the member for Chifley, who is in the chamber today. Can I start by expressing my thanks to my fellow committee members; the chair, the member for Cunningham; and secretariat staff, who not only did an excellent job in arranging the inquiry hearings and extensive field work that we did, providing us with excellent briefing documents, but also assisted in the compilation of this fantastic report. I am sure that I would speak on behalf of every committee member, even those who submitted a dissenting report, in saying that the support provided by the secretariat was nothing short of first-class.

One of the defining features of the first 90 years of this Federation was the willingness of those earlier generations of Australians to make sacrifices for the future generations in aid of nation building. It is because they were willing to make these sacrifices that today we enjoy the benefits of a national railway system, the great railway links between the east coast and the west coast and the north-south rail links. We enjoy, by international standards at least—and by regional standards—good systems of roads and highways and some of the best ports in the South-East Asia region. We have a telegraph and a telephone system which, at least for the first 60 years of Federation, stood out in the region and in this part of the world as one of the icons of development. These things did not happen for any reason; they happened because earlier generations of Australians and their leaders in government had foresight and the willingness to make sacrifices for future generations.

Against this background it is quite disappointing that, when we look at recent ABS data, we see that governments today—and this is governments at local, state and federal level—are now spending $25 billion a year less, in 2010 terms, than they were during the 1960s and 1970s on public works. That is right: we are now spending $25 billion less. This at a time when the income that we are receiving from the resources boom is at record highs. Some estimate that our national income is growing by somewhere in the vicinity of $190 billion per annum. It really is a cause of great shame that this generation of Australians, for a significant part of the last decade, have not shown the same degree of foresight as our earlier generations in investing in infrastructure and public works for future generations.

The NBN, the National Broadband Network, is perhaps a standout example, which runs against the trend of the last 15 years. It has been backed by the Australian people: let us not forget that this went to no fewer than two federal elections. They have backed the government's visionary plan to reverse that trend, that failure to invest in infrastructure, and to build a National Broadband Network, at a cost of $35.9 billion to the Commonwealth, as an investment in our future.

The previous speaker, the opposition spokesperson for communications and broadband, the member for Wentworth, made great fun—great personal amusement, at least—of this investment. He has been carrying on at great length about the fact that what we are doing with this National Broadband Network is effectively building beyond the capacity or need of the current nation. We take a different view. We take the view that what are building by rolling out fibre to the home through the National Broadband Network is actually future-proofing this infrastructure in the same way as those who built railway networks in the early 1900s and telegraph networks in the second decade of the last century ensured that they were future-proofing that technology.

I think of my grandfather when he moved into his first house after he got married. He had two electrical devices: a standard lamp and a wireless radio. They did not have a fridge. They used an icebox back in those days. You can imagine the limitations and the cost to future generations if every house that was built from 1915 to 1930 had only two power points in it. Why would you need more than two power points in a house? Because people only had a wireless radio and standard lamp. Electric refrigerators had not been invented back then. Televisions had not been invented back then. Electric washing machines and dryers had not been invented back then, so why would we need to put more than two power points or design an electricity distribution system when people had no more than two low-voltage electrical appliances in a house? It is absolute nonsense, of course, from what we saw because houses were designed with future-proofing—for example, the capacity to deploy more electrical devices over the next 60 to 70 years. The growth in the electronics industry and in electronic devices in this country is such that they are a feature of every modern home.

It is the same with fibre to the home. What we are doing by delivering a fibre-optic cable into just about every home in the country is ensuring that every Australian has the capacity to benefit from this technology—not just now but well into the future—so that they have access to the new platforms of service delivery and entertainment into the future.

The opposition raises lots of arguments about competition. This is after 11 years in government and, by my count—and the member for Chifley might correct me on this—19 failed broadband plans. We had no more competition in the broadband space and no improvement in the delivery of broadband services to electorates like my own in the Illawarra—the electorate of Throsby—and the electorate now occupied by my colleague the member for Chifley. Broadband services were not significantly advanced over that 11-year period.

What the National Broadband Network will deliver, quite contrary to the contributions of the member for Wentworth, is competition—competition in the delivery of broadband services. No longer will every broadband supplier have to at some point in the connection access the Telstra monopoly network; they will have access to a ubiquitous network with which to deliver their broadband services to end users.

We are delivering real competition and a ubiquitous service. I have to say—and this goes directly to the terms of reference of the committee—this is something that is well understood in the regions that we visited. It would be true to say that, after hearings throughout regional Australia and in most capital cities, we could not find a voice in opposition to what we were proposing to do. We could not find a voice that said what the government was trying to do in providing ubiquitous broadband services throughout Australia is going to be bad for the country. In fact, they were all excited about the proposition. They could see that broadband was going to lead to a revolution in the delivery of e-health services.

We heard evidence from people about being able to deliver internet based monitoring for elderly Australians in their living rooms, delivered by doctors who might not even live in the same state—literally thousands of miles away—providing services that would not otherwise be delivered to those people. Simple consultations are able to be done through video facilities for people who have suffered stroke and need simple diagnostic or therapeutic assistance with their condition. Previously those patients would have had to engage in three- or four-hour round trips from their remote locations to major centres where they could consult with a physician perhaps for five minutes—half a day's trip to have a five-minute consultation and great cost and inconvenience to the individual. That could now be delivered to a person's living room via a doctor who is delivering the consultation from their normal place of practice.

When those opposite mock the fact that the greatest use of this new broadband service is going to be through the delivery of video they miss the real point. Yes, the provision of ubiquitous broadband services will lead to an absolute ballooning in the use of, and the capacity to deliver, video services. But this is not just about home videos and entertainment; this is about a revolution in the way everything from education services to health delivery services and executive board meetings can be delivered down the track.

Those on the other side are probably very familiar with ASX listed companies which quite routinely conduct their board meetings or management meetings by videoconference. They are able to do that because they have the capital and the equipment to do it. What the NBN will deliver is the capacity for small businesses to have meetings with clients throughout Australia and throughout the world and for ordinary Australians to have access to those video-linked services from their very living room.

The evidence that we heard—it is well documented in the majority report—is that the delivery of the NBN is not only going to be a boon for delivery of e-health services but also going to provide great opportunities for the delivery of online training and education services. We heard some fantastic evidence from universities and other training providers about how the NBN would enable the universities to provide services to students who live in remote Australia and give them the access to quality education, lectures and online tutorials that would currently require somebody to live in a capital city or to reside in the vicinity of a university. So it will literally expand the access to those education services to people who currently do not have access to those services.

The NBN closes the gap; it removes the tyranny of distance. My electorate covers the Illawarra, where over 20,000 people daily make the journey from Wollongong or the southern suburbs of the Illawarra to Sydney, Campbelltown or Liverpool for work—giving up four hours a day, almost half as much time as they spend at work, travelling on a train. The National Broadband Network will make the possibility of bringing those jobs into the region—or ensuring that people do not have to stand on that train platform at 5 am every morning to make that trip to Sydney—all the more tangible, all the more possible, all the more real.

This is a region that has recently been rocked by the announcement by BlueScope Steel that it is halving its steel capacity and laying off in excess of 1,000 workers. There is a hope—it is a very real prospect—that the National Broadband Network will be spread from the current trial site in Kiama up to my electorate of Throsby and into my colleague's electorate of Cunningham.

The one thing that stands against the National Broadband Network providing new opportunities to the citizens of the Illawarra and the South Coast, and to the small businesses and the future small businesses of the Illawarra, is those who sit on the opposite side of the chamber and do nothing but bag this, probably because they did not think of it first and probably because they cannot see the benefits. I am sure that if I resided in the leafy inner-city suburbs of Paddington, Vaucluse or any of the suburbs that have excellent broadband service—whether they are delivered by fibre optic cable or wireless—then I would not see the need for a national broadband network. But when I visit towns like Albion Park, one of the fastest-growing suburbs in my electorate, which cannot even get wireless broadband services let alone broadband services by a fixed line then it is a very different story. It is an excellent report and I commend it to the House.

A speech to Parliament on the report of Infrastructure and Communications Committee into the National Broadband Network.

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