Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2017

It's great to be in parliament talking about this critical national project. It's great to see members opposite celebrating the infrastructure project that they campaigned against when Labor was in government. I welcome the fact they are doing that today. I don't welcome the fact that they're using this as an opportunity to rewrite history, and I'll address some of those issues in the course of my contribution.

There are two bills before parliament. The first is the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2017, the statutory infrastructure provider bill, which I will go into some detail about. The second is the Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2017, which concerns a cross-subsidy arrangement. The competition and consumer bill, the statutory infrastructure provider bill, establishes a regime in schedule 3 that will offer certainty, beyond the initial NBN rollout, that every Australian home and small business can continue to get access to a high-speed broadband connection. The statutory infrastructure provider—the SIP, if I can use the acronym—enshrines in law the obligations that are currently set out in the government's statement of expectations for the NBN. The statement of expectations requires the company to make the NBN accessible to all Australians. This is a carry-through of the Labor policy to ensure that every household and every business in the country had access through fibre, through wireless or through a satellite service to the National Broadband Network. It's now a matter of history that the Prime Minister could not leave well alone. He had to satiate the desire of the former Leader of the Opposition and former Prime Minister to wreck everything that Labor established, including the National Broadband Network. In part, that involved changing the model from one which would see fibre rolled out to over 93 per cent of premises throughout the country to his second-rate copper based system, which is now creating so many problems within the network— more on that in a moment.

The statement of expectations requires that every premises in the country has access to an NBN service, and the bill is going to put that into legislation. It's going to create a legislative requirement for that to occur. It is important now, but more important past the initial rollout phase. I see that the member for Cunningham is in the House at the moment. We share a border in the Illawarra and we share some problems, where you might have infill development or new development in areas and the NBN has already rolled through the place and people are finding it difficult to get the NBN connected to the premises in anything like a reasonable time. A provision such as this creates an obligation on the statutory infrastructure provider, which will be NBN in the majority of cases, to connect those premises on a request from a carriage service provider. The NBN was obviously established to operate as a wholesale-only, structurally separated entity so that retail competition would drive benefits to consumers. This competition would provide lower prices, more choice and better outcomes for consumers and small businesses, and we're already seeing that, to a large extent, across all parts of the telecommunications market. 

The statutory infrastructure regime puts into legislation Labor's vision of universal access, which we brought forward almost a decade ago. It provides certainty to consumers, industry and stakeholders about the obligations to supply high-speed broadband beyond the rollout. Of course, there are valid arguments that this measure takes a minimal approach to ensuring the NBN project is accountable to consumer needs and expectations. In particular, it's important to note that consumer protections, such as the provision of a telephone service through the customer service guarantee, do not yet exist for broadband services, and that is a job of work that needs to continue. It is long overdue, many of us argue, and this is in urgent need of redress.

When the member for Grey made his contribution, he said that he barely receives an NBN complaint in his electorate. That frankly does not stack up with the data. The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman saw a surge in complaints, of over 204 per cent, in the last year. Talk to most members in this place, and they'll tell you the second or third area of complaints to their office—if not their first at some point in time, particularly in the HFC area—is NBN. We know that the complaints are outstripping the level of activation, so there are issues there that need to be resolved.

I am not one who is not going to give credit where credit is due. Labor has campaigned hard on the demand to see some significant changes on that initial transition program. To some extent, the industry and the NBN have changed some of their processes, and there is improvement there, but we've got a long way to go. We know, for example, that in certain technology areas, there are significant problems. I'm mindful of those households in areas that are subject to the HFC NBN services. We have seen, in data provided by the NBN Co to the Senate estimates committee, that those services suffer 30 times as much down time as the fibre NBN—even worse than the copper NBN, which has twice as much down time because of faults and major outages. So it does pose the question of why the Prime Minister, against all good advice, when he was communications minister, pursued the multi-technology mix strategy, which has led to so many problems throughout the network.

Like the member for Cunningham, I represent a regional electorate where I know a large proportion of my electorate receives services that are not through fixed-line services. With the fixed-wireless service, we know that a quarter of the cells offer speeds that are below the current statement of expectations. This is a matter of concern for people in regional areas. We know that congestion is a problem for around six per cent, by our estimate, and could be affecting around 40,000 customers on 500 of the NBN's fixed-wireless cells. So we want to ensure that, as we are turning our minds to consumer protections and consumer rights, we are seeing those customers who are on the non-fixed-line network receiving the benefits that have been enshrined in statements of expectation and that the government says to the NBN should be the minimum service levels that are expected by any customer throughout the country.

We know some of these problems are going to get worse, by the way. If the network is struggling to deliver 25 megabits per second during peak times now, we know those problems are going to get worse. The reason we know this is that Australians have a voracious appetite for data. Every 12 months the amount of data that we download as a nation increases by 40 per cent—and it's not all Netflix. Yes, there is a component of that in there, but there is a 40 per cent increase every 12 months and no sign of that slowing down anytime soon. You're a wise man, Deputy Speaker. You would have taken note of the fact that we aren't increasing the number of hours of the day by 40 per cent every 12 months, which means, if we don't have a 40 per cent increase in the amount of time to download that data, then we've got to have an increase in our capacity to download it over the same amount of time. That means we need to increase the speeds of download. It's as simple as that. It's kind of second-grade maths.

People on the—I won't use the word 'inferior'—less able network technologies are going to feel the brunt first. Whether they are on satellite or fixed-wireless services, on the copper or the HFC services, that's where the problems are going to be felt first. That is why it is so important that we turn our minds to consumer protections, so that we have the right pressures in the marketplace, on both the retailers and on the NBN, to ensure that people have the technology to do the job that is expected and that people are getting the service they are paying for. It's as simple as that. People should be getting the service that they are paying for. And if we want to enable our businesses, our schools and our households for the digital economy of the future—we used to talk about innovation a lot in this place; I understand it's not the flavour of the month with the government at the moment, but it's still important—we need to enable our digital economy. Clearly, we're not there yet.

I want to say something about the Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2017. Brought forward in schedule 4 of the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2017, it sets out a levy that is going to be payable on all non-NBN fixed-line services. The rationale for the levy is that regional fixed-wireless and satellite NBN services are unprofitable. We always knew that. We always knew that if we were going to go for ubiquity and see access to broadband as a citizenship right then there were going to be some areas that simply weren't going to be delivered through market forces alone. That cost is estimated, over the period between now and 2040—as the member for Grey before me mentioned—to be around $9.8 billion. It will cost the NBN Co roughly $725 million annually by 2019-20 to support these regional services.

We need to ensure that those services are maintained. That is why Labor, with some significant reservations, is supporting this part of the legislative package—not without some concerns, and not without a belief that this is not going to be the last word on this particular issue. It is not going to be the last word on this particular issue, and we know that because only a few months ago the government, after years of urging, conceded that it had to get its skates on over a review of the universal service obligations and the customer service guarantees that are attached to those obligations. Quite simply, if a cross-subsidy arrangement exists within one part of a fixed-line network for telephony and phone box services then we've got to drag that into the 21st century. Deputy Speaker, it'll strike your constituents as somewhat crazy, as it does mine, that we have a guarantee to a phone box but not to a broadband service, but that's what the universal service obligation arrangements provide at the moment. They provide significant cross-subsidies for a phone box and a copper-line service. We need to drag that into the broadband age, and we need to look at both the universal service obligations and the cross-subsidies that are necessary for a viable, ubiquitous national broadband network as a job lot. That is why I say that this cross-subsidy charge, the subject of this bill, will not be the last word on the subject. Labor supports it with those reservations.

The reason it's necessary, by the way, and the reason that the charge is falling upon those non-NBN fast broadband providers, is that we cannot have a viable market, cannot roll two superfast broadband networks out to the entire country, based principally on a fixed-line connection. It is simply not economically viable. We have seen that through our pay TV experience. What we can do that's economically viable is have two in an inner city area. The problem is, though, that if one of those providers has an obligation throughout the entire country and the other one only has customers in the inner city then one has a massive market advantage—it's not viable. It's why Labor took the correct decision back in 2007 to mandate the NBN as the principal fixed-line service provider and fixed-wire service provider across the network.

The Prime Minister, when he was opposition communications spokesperson, sent the wrong signals into the market, and that's, in part, why we have the problems that we're dealing with today. Some of the problems we are dealing with today are the result of his interventions back then. We have to put a levy on these to ensure that we have the revenue to cross-subsidise these provisions. With those reservations, I support the bill and the amendment.