Monday, 18 June 2007
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Prime Minister. Can the Prime Minister confirm a recent OECD report that the technology being deployed in his rural broadband rollout will only deliver maximum speeds in favourable weather, flat landscapes and low-use levels, and that speed predictions ‘may be overly optimistic and tend to rely on theoretical maximums rather than what users may be able to typically expect’? Prime Minister, why are you proposing a second-rate broadband solution for people in rural and regional Australia?
In answer to the question from the Leader of the Opposition I can assure him that the technology proposed and announced today is nothing as described by the Leader of the Opposition. The OECD report to which the Leader of the Opposition has referred concludes that WiMAX is a particularly suitable platform for regional broadband access. The report says:
WiMAX equipment could play a key role in providing long-range fixed-wireless connectivity in rural and remote areas as well as mobile connectivity over shorter distances.
The OECD report, contrary to the impression given by the Leader of the Opposition, is extremely favourable to WiMAX and it is about time that the Leader of the Opposition stopped being so selective and unrepresentative in the way in which he quotes from official documents.
My question is also addressed to the Prime Minister. Would the Prime Minister update the House on the government’s investment in high-speed broadband? What percentage of the population will have access to high-speed broadband? Are there any alternative views?
I thank the member for Macquarie. As it happens, I will be able to inform him in the course of this answer of some of the benefits that will accrue to his electorate from the announcement I made together with the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts in Goulburn earlier today. As a result of the government’s policies, in two years time 99 per cent of the Australian population will have access to very fast broadband, and we will not need to raid the future savings of Australian soldiers and police in order to achieve that outcome.
We are going to invest $958 million to ensure that 99 per cent of the population will have that access to very fast broadband by June 2009. A state-of-the-art broadband network will be rolled out across the country, delivering speeds of 12 megabits per second to 99 per cent of the Australian population at metropolitan comparable prices. Indeed, 75 per cent of the population will have speeds of 20 megabits per second. The government has awarded the $958 million Broadband Connect competitive grant to OPEL, which is a joint venture between Optus and Elders. The joint venture itself will contribute $917 million to this rollout, making this a total $1.875 billion investment in very fast, affordable broadband. It will be made up, essentially, of two components: firstly, the enabling of 426 ADSL2+ exchanges in outer metropolitan and regional areas, giving access to very fast and affordable broadband for an additional three million—
Let me repeat that for the benefit of the member for Ballarat: very fast and affordable broadband for an additional three million premises this year. Secondly, there will be a deployment of 1,360 WiMAX wireless base stations across the country, bringing very fast and affordable broadband to 99 per cent of the population by June 2009. Contrary to the sneering remarks of the Leader of the Opposition, WiMAX wireless is a 4G technology designed specifically for broadband, delivering speeds of 12 megabits per second. WiMAX is a scaleable technology, meaning that its speeds will increase into the future as the base stations are upgraded. Also for the benefit of the Leader of the Opposition, I point out that ADSL2+ can deliver speeds of up to 20 megabits per second over copper wire, and the intention is for the additional 426 very fast ADSL2+ broadband exchanges to be switched on this year, with the process beginning immediately.
All of this will be achieved without touching the $2 billion regional communications fund, which the opposition is going to steal in order to fund a fibre optic network that ought be provided by commercial operators who are going to earn a great deal of money out of the provision of that network. In relation to that network, we are establishing a competitive bid process. The group that will make the decision and confer with industry and the government will include representatives from my department, the Secretary to the Treasury, the Secretary to the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, the ACCC and private businesses representatives. There will be no cost to the taxpayer. We will provide this, or the market will provide it, at no cost to the taxpayer. The Leader of the Opposition will take $2 billion away from the bush and $2.7 billion out of the superannuation provisions for Australia’s soldiers and Federal Police in order to pay for something that ought to be paid for by the private sector. The man who knows nothing about productivity also knows nothing about competition in communications. Why on earth would anybody provide $4.7 billion to subsidise the creation of something that ought to be produced by the private sector, because the private sector will make a great deal of money out of the provision of that service?
My question again is to the Prime Minister. Can the Prime Minister inform the parliament why, after 11 years in office, his government is only acting now on broadband—three months out from a federal election? Prime Minister, isn’t this just a poll-driven attempt to protect Liberal Party and National Party marginal seats?
Opposition members interjecting—
It is untrue, as the Leader of the Opposition alleges, to suggest that the government is only now doing something about this issue. I remind the Leader of the Opposition that as a result of government programs over the last three years some 1.3 million additional premises have obtained access to broadband. That is, 1.3 million premises have obtained access to broadband as a result of government programs over the last three years. Although this is an unsatisfactory figure, approximately 50 per cent of Australians can currently access broadband at 12 megabits per second. I would also point out to the Leader of the Opposition that the Competitive Grants Program, the result of which was announced by me and my colleagues this morning, was foreshadowed some time ago and work on that commenced after the completion of the sale of Telstra.
The Leader of the Opposition invites me to say something about the availability of services in certain parts of Australia. I am very happy to say that in the electorate of Macquarie, so ably represented by the Chief Government Whip, seven exchanges will be upgraded to very fast ADSL2+ broadband and 15 new wireless broadband sites will be built in the region. The very fast updates will occur in Bathurst, Blackheath, Hazelbrook, Katoomba—two sites—Lawson and Wentworth Falls. As to the wireless broadband sites—that is, 12 megabits per second—
there will be two sites at Bathurst, one at Blayney, one at Essington, one at Hampton, one at Lawson, one at Lithgow, one at Mount Marsden, one at Mount Ryan, one at Mount Victoria, one at Oberon, one at Palmers Oakley, one at Portland and one at Newnes. This is just a small illustration of the spread of this facility. I can assure the House that when the details of the switch-on of the ADSL2+ are revealed, the House will see that the government is totally even-handed and that this is not in any way restricted disproportionately to government-held seats.
My question is addressed to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport and Regional Services. Would the Deputy Prime Minister advise the House how the government’s investment in broadband will benefit working families and businesses in rural and regional Australia and, more particularly, in my electorate of Riverina? Are there any alternative policies that might threaten this long-term commitment?
I thank the member for Riverina for her question. I recognise her ongoing commitment to making sure that there is significant investment in modern communications technology throughout regional Australia, particularly in the electorate of Riverina. The announcement that I had the pleasure of taking part in with the Prime Minister and the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts this morning will certainly do that. We have been through a competitive process both in terms of value and technology so that we are able to ensure that the best available technology is rolled out across regional Australia and that the maximum number of people in regional Australia have access to broadband services. The announcement this morning of $1.8 billion invested in regional Australia is enormously significant, given that roughly 50 per cent of that investment is being contributed by the Commonwealth government and the other is being matched by private sector providers to build the network across regional Australia. That means 99 per cent of people in Australia will have the ability to access broadband internet connections. It is something that all Australians obviously want. The other one per cent will also be covered through our existing Australian Broadband Guarantee program. So right across the Australian community there is an opportunity to achieve 100 per cent broadband coverage.
The OPEL network will include a mix of cutting-edge technology—WiMAX wireless, broadband and fibre-optic cable—to deliver a minimum of 12 megabits per second by June 2009. This proposal is wireless, it is fibre optic, as well as being a massive rollout of ADSL2 technology. Under this proposal, 426 exchanges that have the capability of being wound up in terms of capacity by putting ADSL2 DSLAMs in them are going to get them. They have not had them done under the current provider. They will automatically get cranked up. This technology is just the beginning. The network is specifically designed in its scalability, with speeds of up to 70 megabits a second available as technology evolves. This point has been seized upon by the NFF in welcoming and commending this announcement by the government. I quote from the NFF’s release:
The choice of WiMAX wire technology supplementing the additional ADSL 2+ technology to deliver services from the exchange to the farm is vitally important, but also provides the opportunity for scaleable high speed broadband into the future.
These people represent a lot of the businesses in regional and rural and remote Australia, and they support this announcement by the government. They support the decision we have taken to ensure that an open access regime is available right across regional Australia in terms of the competitive pressures that we want to bring to the marketplace. This will certainly do it. Importantly, it secures still the $2 billion perpetual Communications Fund that underpins the ability to fund new technology into regional Australia as and when it comes online in the future. Next year we expect $400 million to be available out of that fund to spend on new technology in rural and regional Australia. Just remember—this is the $2 billion fund that the Australian Labor Party wants to steal and spend on its proposal. Labor proposes to spend $4.7 billion on broadband, which it claims will reach 98 per cent of the population. However, most commentators say it will reach only 75 per cent of the population. Labor proposes to spend $4.7 billion on broadband—$2 billion of that stolen from the bush and the other $2 billion stolen from future ex-service men and women and their pension fund, their superannuation fund for the future. Under Labor’s proposal broadband would reach only 75 per cent of the people across Australia. But the worst point—and I know the member for Riverina will be very interested in this—is that it is proposing to reach only 75 per cent of Australians by 2013. Labor’s completion date is 2013. We have announced today a completion date of mid-2009, reaching 99 per cent of the population.
That is the difference between the government’s proposal and the Australian Labor Party’s proposal. Under Labor’s ‘fraudband’ proposal, where they are going to steal $2 billion from the bush, they are not going to achieve 98 per cent coverage—
I refer to the Prime Minister’s answer to the previous question, when he said that the government’s consideration of its broadband policy had been even-handed and had not disproportionately considered marginal seats. Prime Minister, I refer to this leaked email of 31 May 2007, marked ‘in-confidence’ from the office of the communications minister, which indicates the need for electorate maps to be available for the cabinet meeting discussion of this broadband announcement and which also refers explicitly to ‘the top 40 electorates’ for the purposes of this announcement, all of which happen to be government-held. Prime Minister, how does this leaked email sit with your assurances to the parliament barely five minutes ago that the government’s handling of this matter has been even-handed?
that the great majority of seats in rural and regional Australia are held by the coalition. That is just a matter of electoral arithmetic. If it were a policy that we were applying overwhelmingly to the inner metropolitan area, then the great majority of the beneficiaries would be Labor seats. I cannot help it that at present the great majority of seats in rural and regional Australia are held by—