House debates

Wednesday, 4 December 2013


Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Submarine Cable Protection) Bill 2013; Second Reading

1:18 pm

Photo of Jason ClareJason Clare (Blaxland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

Before the adjournment last night, I was making the point that the government is not off to a good start in implementing its own second-rate version of the NBN. I made the points that construction of the NBN had slowed down since the election and that the government had broken its promise to honour every existing contract, which had left about half a million homes and businesses in Australia in limbo—unsure whether they would get fibre all the way to the premises or whether they would get the slower, second-rate, second-class version that the government had promised before the election, fibre to the node. In addition to that, construction companies have not been given enough work and, despite the promises that the minister has made that he would ensure that companies would not have to lay off people, contractors have had to lay off staff. Workers have been laid off in different parts of the country, and the most recent example of that was publicised in the Illawarra Mercury only a few weeks ago, where up to 40 workers from Thiess who were previously working on the construction of the NBN have been put off.

In the last week or so I have been to the Illawarra and to the Central Coast of New South Wales and have met some of the half a million that the minister has taken off the NBN rollout map. I can tell you that they are furious. Some people cannot get ADSL at the moment; they cannot work from home; and their children cannot study, using the internet. They are desperate to get the NBN; they were supposed to get it in the next few months—some before Christmas, some next year. Now they are being told that they have been taken off the rollout map and left in limbo. They honestly do not know what is happening. The minister has claimed in this place that they were taken off the map because nothing was happening—no construction work had started, there were only designs on a map. But that is not what residents have told me. They told me that NBN trucks have been up and down their street and that NBN workers have been putting ropes and pipes into pits in their streets. So, claims that no physical construction work has occurred in many of these areas is nonsense. Dr Switkowski, the chairman and acting CEO of the NBN, had to concede as much when he appeared before the Senate committee on the NBN last week. When he was shown photos of work being done in locations like this, he said that it looked like construction to him. The trucks have gone from a lot of these areas now, and residents of the Illawarra, the Central Coast and elsewhere want them back.

Last week the government struck another problem. The media got a copy of the secret advice that NBN Co. had prepared for the incoming minister's brief, and it is, by all accounts, pretty devastating. It pulls apart the government's plan for fibre to the node and essentially says that it cannot be implemented in the time frame the government has set. According to reports in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, the coalition's NBN plan is inadequate, poorly planned and unlikely to be completed on time. The reports say that the revenue the NBN will make under the coalition's plan will drop by up to 30 per cent. They also say it will compromise the provision of telehealth, distance education, internet TV and other business applications. Of most concern, though, the reports say that the coalition's promise to provide everyone in Australia with access to 25 megabits per second by 2016 is unlikely to be able to be implemented. Ziggy Switkowski said something similar when he gave evidence to the Senate committee last week. He described keeping this promise—the promise to all Australians to get access to 25 megabits per second by 2016—as 'very, very demanding'. That is code or bureaucratic-speak for 'not going to happen'.

To give you an idea of how hard it will be for the government to keep this promise, Dr Switkowski told the committee that no other country in the world had ever rolled out fibre to the node as quickly as this, and that it would require the construction and the installation of between 60,000 and 80,000 nodes or boxes on street corners or 2,000 of these boxes or nodes a week—no small feat. It is no wonder then that the minister has refused to release his incoming minister's brief. It tells him that he probably cannot keep the promises that he made before the election. Given the broken promises that we have seen on education, on debt and on everything else, the government needs another broken promise like it needs a hole in the head.

We are now waiting for the minister to release his strategic review of the NBN. He received it yesterday and he should release it. By his own words, the minister has set a very high bar for this report. He said he wants it to be rigorous and forensic. He said two weeks ago he wants 'hand on heart, realistic and achievable options, prudently costed and scoped, on which we can make weighty decisions'. If the government is going to move from a fibre-to-the-premises model to a fibre-to-the-node model, this strategic review needs to provide realistic costs to fix the copper network and then to maintain the copper network that they are going to use. If this report does not provide that information then it will have failed. I am not talking here about estimates or assumptions or international comparisons; I am talking about hard data provided by Telstra, who currently run the copper network, that is independently tested and independently audited.

Evidence presented to the Senate committee last week claimed that up to 80 per cent of the copper network needs work. I have heard suggestions that maintenance of the current copper network alone could cost between half a billion dollars and $900 million a year. Put another way, maintaining our copper network over the next decade could cost between $5 billion and $9 billion. That is why we need this information in the strategic review. We need to know both how much it is going to cost to fix the copper network so that it is fit for purpose and how much it will cost to maintain it. As the minister has said, these are weighty decisions he has to make, and before you make weighty decisions you need this hard data, independently tested. Those are just a few of the questions that we need answers to. Here are a few more.

Does NBN Co. plan to buy or lease the copper network from Telstra? What plans do they have to utilise the existing HFC network? How are the government going to plug the existing gaps in the HFC network and will they ensure that a HFC network used as part of the NBN has access for everyone—that it is not a closed network, that it is open access? Given the government's promise to make the NBN easy to convert to a full fibre-to-the-premises network in the future, we need to know exactly how this will be done. We need answers to these sorts of questions in the strategic review.

I said at a conference on the NBN a few weeks ago that the Labor Party has won the debate about superfast broadband. We were roundly defeated at the last election, but it was not because of this. People did not vote for the government because of their broadband policy; in fact, I suspect many people voted for the government in spite of it. But the coalition, to their credit, have changed their position. Three years ago the Prime Minister—then the opposition leader—told his team, told the shadow minister, to demolish the NBN. A lot has changed. Now they are saying they are going to keep it, even if in a reduced form, even if through gritted teeth. They are doing this because the Liberal Party realises that the NBN is a bit like Medicare—it is too popular to destroy. My argument to the government is that, if you are going to do this, if you are going to build the NBN, then do it properly and do what Robert Menzies did.

When Robert Menzies was in opposition in 1949 he was one of the fiercest critics of the Snowy hydro scheme. He criticised it up hill and down dale. Two months before the 1949 election, Robert Menzies refused to attend the launch event for the Snowy hydro scheme, but when he became Prime Minister, Robert Menzies changed his mind. He supported the Snowy hydro scheme; he backed it and he built it. This Prime Minister, I fear, is no Robert Menzies. I do not think the Prime Minister understands how important the NBN is, how important this infrastructure is. In the past he has described it as 'essentially a video entertainment system'. But this Prime Minister has also described himself as the infrastructure Prime Minister. He has promised to build the infrastructure of the 21st century, promised to build the infrastructure that Australia needs. Guess what? This is what it is. This is what the NBN is. It is quintessentially the infrastructure of the 21st century, and you cannot be the infrastructure Prime Minister if you are cutting the biggest and most important infrastructure project in Australia.

The Prime Minister is no Robert Menzies, but the Minister for Communications could be. He could have the same change of heart that Robert Menzies had. He gets it, he understands it. In his heart of hearts he knows how important this project is. He knows that 25 megabits per second is not going to be enough, more than enough, for the average household. He knows that creating a digital divide between areas with fibre and those without, building new estates that will have fibre to the premises while old estates have fibre to the node, is bad policy, that we should not be creating a society of haves and have-nots. He knows enough to know better. It is not too late for the Minister for Communications to become another Menzies.

I move:

That all the words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading the House notes that:

(1) in his Second Reading Speech, the Minister acknowledged:

(a) the importance of communications infrastructure to our economy; and

(b) the unforseen evolution of technology and services that could be facilitated using submarine communications cables when Australia's links were first developed in the nineteenth century;

(2) it is critical for policy makers to adopt a forward-looking view of our nation's communications and infrastructure requirements; and

(3) the assertion that broadband speeds of 25Mbps will continue to be sufficient for the needs of Australian households in future is inconsistent with items (1) and (2)."

Photo of Craig KellyCraig Kelly (Hughes, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Mark ButlerMark Butler (Port Adelaide, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment.

1:31 pm

Photo of Jane PrenticeJane Prentice (Ryan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Submarine Cable Protection) Bill 2013. The coalition went to the election with a strong communication plan to bring Australia up to speed with the digital economy by investing in communications infrastructure. Today's bill is one step of many the coalition are taking to deliver on our election promises.

Submarine cables have been used for telephonic and telegraphic purposes for more than 150 years, with submarine telegraph cables first laid across the English Channel in 1851 and across the Atlantic Ocean in 1866. Now modern fibre-optic submarine cable technologies connect the globe in the digital age, transferring multiple terabits of data every second. They are the backbone of the world's communications infrastructure.

Submarine cables are an important factor in connecting Australia to the rest of the world. A connection to the internet enables Australian businesses, families and individuals to engage in commercial, educational and entertainment opportunities. The fast transfer of vast amounts of data enabled by modern submarine cables is vital to our communications infrastructure. To meet future internet traffic growth in Australia there are several proposals for new submarine cables.

When you think of modern day communications and digital terrorism, themes from James Bond and Die Hard4.0 come to mind, where stereotypical nerdy kids in glasses are furiously tapping away at keyboards in the dark, bringing down Western civilisation from behind a computer screen. However, behind the abstract virtual cloud of cyberspace is a very real physical infrastructure with some surprising vulnerabilities. For example, if you want to throw Manhattan into virtual chaos, all you need do is disrupt the New York data centre on John Street. But if you really want to disrupt the internet globally then you need simply interfere with the biggest choke point of all: the undersea fibre-optic cables that move vast volumes of data from continent to continent.

While these intercontinental deep-sea cables seem untraceable in the hundreds of millions—indeed, trillions—of cubic metres of seawater on the planet, these cables have to pass through shallow water at either end where they come ashore. This last kilometre is where the cables are most vulnerable. To add to the vulnerability, the shore nodes are surprisingly concentrated. For example, on the US east coast, virtually all of the transatlantic undersea cables come ashore at three locations between Long Island and southern New Jersey. On the US west coast, the vast bulk of cable traffic is concentrated in two locations—one in central California and the other in Oregon.

Disrupting a cable is not rocket science. There are easier ways of sabotaging the world's internet than those worthy of a James Bond movie. Each year there are approximately 150 unintended cable disruptions by the accidental snagging of a cable with a dragging anchor or fishing net. While most of these disruptions are genuinely accidental, there are occasions when submarine cables become terror targets. Earlier this year there were multiple disruptions on a number of undersea communications cables terminating in Egypt and nearby destinations. The sheer number of breaks struck some observers as an odd coincidence but was chalked up to the chronic problem of dragging ship anchors or tangled bottom nets snagging the communications links. Then the Egyptian coastguard caught three divers trying to cut the SEA-ME-WE-4 cable on the seabed a few hundred yards offshore near Alexandria. While on this occasion the acts of terrorism only amounted to a series of annoying repair headaches and not global cyberspace chaos, it was a troubling reminder of how vulnerable the global cable infrastructure is and presents a precedent for increasing attacks in the future.

While there is considerable redundancy built into the system—as you would hope, when there can be over 150 disruptions a year—if enough capacity is lost through enough cables being disrupted then the effect can be devastating. If too many submarine cables are located in the same pathway and go to the same access points, a single point of failure can arise.

In early 2008, three cables, including SEA-ME-WE-4, were cut between Egypt and Italy. These three cables carry over 90 per cent of all internet traffic between Europe and the Middle East. The amount of bandwidth that crosses Egypt is breathtaking. The SEA-ME-WE-4 cable has a total capacity of 1.28 terabits per second. Multiply that by three and you have lost a lot of capacity for data transfer. Despite aggressive re-routeing, over 14 countries ended up losing web connectivity. The Maldives were completely cut off, while over eight per cent of traffic from India was affected, along with slightly lower outages among the Gulf states, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

As an island nation, Australia is particularly dependent on submarine cables. Sub-sea cables carry the bulk of voice and data traffic in and out of Australia. Australia has seven submarine cables and three declared protection zones. As the majority of damage to submarine cables comes from man-made causes, in Australia's protected zones certain activities—trawling, mining, some types of fishing, anchoring of vessels and dredging—are prohibited or restricted. Within protection zones it is an offence to damage a submarine cable, engage in prohibited activities or contravene a restriction. Penalties include fines of up to $66,000 and/or 10 years imprisonment for an individual and up to $330,000 for a corporation.

Several new cables off the east coast of Australia have been announced, as has a Perth-to-Singapore route. SubPartners and Hawaiki Pty Ltd have announced proposals to construct cables connecting Australia and the United States. Telstra, Vodafone NZ and Telecom NZ have recently announced a joint venture to build an additional cable between Australia and New Zealand.

This bill increases Australia's connectedness, which is a cornerstone of the coalition government's broader communications policy. This bill is a reflection of our commitment to provide $100 million for mobile black spots to ensure more people can connect to mobile phone services, particularly in rural and regional areas, and is of course at the centre of our plan for a better NBN. The coalition is committed to completing the National Broadband Network sooner, more affordably for consumers and at less expense to taxpayers.

Our plan for a better NBN will ensure that areas that do not have adequate broadband service will be prioritised and that broadband services will ultimately be more affordable. This approach ensures that more Australians can prepare for the future of the global digital economy. The coalition government is committed to telling Australians the truth about Labor's NBN. The coalition's plan for a better NBN will see more people have access to fast, affordable broadband sooner. This bill will help ensure Australia's connectedness by improving the submarine cable protection regime set out in schedule 3A of the Telecommunications Act 1997.

This bill aims to ensure consistency between Australia's cable protection regime and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS, which sets out the rights and obligations of coastal nations in relation to the seas and oceans, including Australia's right to regulate foreign ships and persons beyond its territorial waters. Although this issue has not arisen in practice, because the ACMA is required to consider UNCLOS when it exercises its powers, some concerns have been expressed that the regime may seek to regulate foreign nationals for certain actions in waters of the exclusive economic zone or continental shelf in a manner inconsistent with international law, including UNCLOS. This bill provides a structured process for the consideration of matters within the Attorney-General's portfolio in relation to submarine cable installation permit applications.

This bill enables significant cables that connect two places in Australia to be brought under the regime's protection. The Governor-General will have the power to specify in regulations that a domestic cable or route be given protection. ACMA would then have discretion to decide whether a protection zone should be declared around that cable or route. Examples of significant domestic submarine cables are those owned by Telstra and Basslink, which cross Bass Strait to Tasmania. This bill will enable domestic submarine cables to be brought into the regime and be suitably protected under the regime if appropriate. The bill will also streamline the permit process so carriers need to obtain only one type of permit to land a cable in Australia. The permit-processing time frames are tightened and duplicative processes are eliminated. Australia's regime has been praised as a global best practice example for the protection of submarine cables. (Time expired)

1:40 pm

Photo of Michelle RowlandMichelle Rowland (Greenway, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Communications) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very pleased to rise to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Submarine Cable Protection) Bill 2013 and, in particular, to support the amendment moved by the shadow minister for communications, the member for Blaxland. I was very heartened by the words of the minister in his second reading speech, which included an overview of the evolution of infrastructure in relation to submarine cable systems and the way in which technological developments have led to unforeseen benefits for the industry, for consumers and for the world economy as a whole. This infrastructure was initially limited to telegraph messages but was then extended to voice and now to data.

The minister's speech reminded me of some of the dangers of trying to predict the future, particularly in an age of rapid technological change. I am sure that those people who laid those cables could not possibly have foreseen the uses to which they would be put in the modern age. It also reminds me of some bad predictions that have been made regarding technology. The shadow minister highlighted at least one, but my favourite is from Sir William Preece: 'The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.' One can only judge from that quote that short-sightedness catches up with policymakers and with society as a whole if we do not do things properly, if we underestimate the pace and scope of change and opportunity.

I would have thought that, considering his second reading speech, the minister would have appreciated the dangers of predicting limitations in technology. I have heard he invented the internet. Yesterday, I believe, he told his party room he invented television. It stands to reason that a minister in a portfolio such as his would appreciate that technology requires forward thinking, forward policy-making and notions of not limiting ourselves to not only nascent markets but unthought-of markets at any given time.

The great irony of this bill is that it is all about the importance of submarine cables as vital infrastructure connecting us to the rest of the world. The minister mentioned in his second reading speech an APEC report—I am sure it is the same one that I have looked at. I am not sure if he read it, but, if he did, the irony has certainly escaped him on this occasion. He will come to understand that when I take some quotes from it. These are vital pieces of infrastructure that must be built properly the first time, not limited to what can be accomplished when they are first laid but protected for the future so that technology can adapt and exploit to its full extent.

I note that in the APEC Policy Support Unit document Economic Impact of Submarine Cable Disruptions Australia is described as one of the best practice case studies, along with Hong Kong and China. That is relevant to the substance of the bill. Australia, it is noted, has 'regulatory provisions to aid the protection of submarine cables in and around Australia' and works with significant international community fora to make that happen. It notes that there are submarine cable protection zones in Australia off the east coast and off the west coast and that activities likely to damage these cables are prohibited or restricted inside the protection zones. Those activities include activities such as trawling, anchoring, mining and dredging. I will draw the attention of the House to some very interesting aspects of this APEC report.

Photo of Bruce ScottBruce Scott (Maranoa, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and the member will have leave to continue her remarks when the debate is resumed.