Thursday, 13 February 2020
Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2019, Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2019; Second Reading
I note with interest that there are no government members who wish to speak on this legislation, the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2019 and the Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2019. The two most significant national projects the Morrison government was entrusted to deliver for all Australians were the NBN and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Both have been dismal failures of this government. They were national rollouts that the previous Labor government had done the groundwork for. Indeed, all of the difficult work in respect of the preparation was already done. The failure of the Morrison government to roll out both the NDIS and the National Broadband Network on time and on budget, and to meet community expectations, highlights this government's incompetency. This is a government now in its third term. It has had plenty of time to settle in, to carry out whatever reviews it thought it needed at the time it came into office and to deliver on the election promises it made to the Australian people. It has failed to do so.
Under this government, now in its seventh year, the NBN rollout is a mess, with consumers raising concerns and frustrations about NBN connections and services every day. The coalition decided, in their wisdom, to change Labor's National Broadband Network rollout, claiming the coalition rollout would enable the NBN to be delivered faster and cheaper. After seven years they have failed on both counts. Costs have blown out to $51 billion, the rollout is four years behind schedule and the service is failing to meet community standards on so many fronts. I have lost count of the number of people who have contacted my office over the years with NBN difficulties.
The Morrison government's National Broadband Network rollout has been badly designed, which is why this legislation is now before the House. They are trying to fix another problem—the problem of funding. That also goes to the services that are being provided, and it's a funding problem that arises because of the very structure of their rollout. In today's society an internet connection is no longer a luxury. It's not an option; it is a necessity. Nearly all business, including government services, is transacted through the internet. Without the internet you cannot get on with your normal daily life anymore.
The two major entities that have responsibility for enabling National Broadband Network connectivity are Telstra and NBN Co. Both have been the subject of thousands of complaints each year to the telecommunications ombudsman. In 2018-19 there were 132,387 complaints. Some might argue that those complaints have dropped from the previous year. My view is that, if the complaint numbers have dropped, it's simply because people have given up complaining, because they know that it ultimately results in no action. Both Telstra and NBN Co have a monopoly over their service sector and can be very difficult to deal with, particularly for people with limited communication skills or who are not familiar with new technology.
I was recently contacted by a local person who has extensive knowledge in the telecommunication sector, a person who has spent considerable time not only to put together his thoughts on the NBN—and Telstra, for that matter—but also to look at things that could be done to improve the services. He listed for me 12 issues that need to be addressed, and I'm going to go through them, one at a time.
First: poor technical support from overseas call centres, staffed by people who often have limited training and no understanding of the Australian context. Frequently, there are deficiencies in their technical language capabilities. Second: physical cabling failures and limitations within the copper network used for the last section of the fibre-to-the-node technology. Third: high prices for services compared with other countries. Fourth: packaging of services by providers into bundles which cannot be broken down into separately priced items to permit customers to make a fair comparison with their competitors. Fifth: obfuscation of costs and constraints in marketing of products and services and in contracts, which might be discovered by consumers only when a problem arises. Can I say, that seems to be a common problem. When a problem arises and someone then goes back to their contract, they suddenly find out that the problem that they have encountered is not the responsibility of their provider or of NBN or of Telstra, and there is a backwards-and-forwards process in respect to who it is that they need to get on side to fix the problem.
Sixth: providers often phase out bundles as the contracts expire and replace them with much more expensive options. Seventh: selling services such as internet access with speed boost, yet failing to purchase sufficient bandwidth from NBN Co to meet the demand of their customers—again, a common problem. Eighth: providers refusing to provide access to technical data on the modems and equipment they provide to customers, limiting options for consumers to solve problems themselves or to turn to third parties for technical support. On that issue alone, I fail to understand why the technical data relating to modems and other telecommunications equipment is not made available to all people so that people can either get on with doing their own repairs and maintenance or whatever it is or get a technician of their choice to come in and do it, yet that is not the case. Ninth: failure to disclose the full ramifications when transferring to the NBN, including the potential need to rewire existing home or business telephone networks, with limits on how many handsets can be connected to the modem and limitations with location of phone outlets. Again, I see homes and I speak to people who have connected to the NBN and then suddenly find that they cannot have the same phone system in their home that they had before the NBN connection. Tenth: consumers are also not always aware that in most cases standard landline services will not work during a power outage, and the previous speaker spoke about that in her own community, as a result of the bushfires. It's a serious problem, because many of the people who are now connected are older people who rely on their telephone, and not only to make calls; quite often they might have the emergency alarm systems also connected through the same system and, if it fails, there is no way of anyone knowing if they are in need. Eleventh: some users who only want a basic landline service end up paying more than they need to for bundles with large data allowances. Twelfth: when encountering technical difficulties, consumers often get caught between their internet service provider and NBN Co, with each saying the problem is the other's fault. I referred to that earlier, and it seems to be one of the most common problems we encounter, certainly in my community. The difficulty in navigating through all of the various parties is something that I can only empathise with consumers about. It is sometimes near impossible to get through to them. Indeed, some of the people who have come to my office have done so as a last resort because they have exhausted all of the options they believe they have in getting the problem resolved. And, inevitably, after they come to my office, we're able to get someone from NBN to perhaps coordinate the services required and get the issue resolved. But it's never easy.
Other issues that have also been raised with me, or my office, include that, when switching over to the NBN—which many consumers have needed to do to maintain their phone or internet access—some have had to choose between paying a higher monthly cost or accepting a service that is inferior to what they had. Many consumers who received the NBN by HFC experienced significant delays in the rollout, or technical problems. Consumers sometimes experienced lengthy delays trying to transfer to the NBN and sometimes lost phone or internet services for extended periods during the transfer.
Lastly, often home security systems or personal alarms are not compatible with the NBN and would not function in the event of a power outage. I realise they can get a battery back-up in some cases, but, again, if you're not familiar or conversant with new technology, you might not have done that. Whilst there is an NBN scheme to assist with the costs of replacement, there are some limitations and there will still be some out-of-pocket costs to the consumers. Many of these issues have been caused by or exacerbated as a consequence of the government's multi-technology mix rather than Labor's original plan for fibre-to-the-premises coverage, which would have covered around 93 per cent of the nation.
Other speakers have referred to the internet speeds. The New Daily recently reported that Australia's broadband internet ranked fourth slowest in the OECD world—fourth slowest. In global internet speed rankings, Australia has fallen to 68th of 177 countries. These are recent figures; these are not old figures. Whilst the government might dismiss those figures and come back with some excuse as to how they are not correct and the like, I say to the government that the reality is that there have now been too many reports showing that people are not getting the internet speeds or quality of service that they were led to expect.
Reliable, high-speed, world-class internet services are important for the nation and they're important for business productivity and efficiency. They are an essential service. They should no longer be treated as something that consumers have choices about; it is part of the world and the life that we live. If we cannot deliver the services that both residents and businesses need, we as a nation cannot move forward, and nor can we be competitive with the rest of the world. This legislation, I know, tries to address some problems. But, quite frankly, this government stands condemned for the failure to roll out the service that this country needs in 2020 and the failure to deliver on the promises it made to the Australian people.