Thursday, 23 August 2018
Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2018, Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2018; Second Reading
I'll continue my remarks on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2018 and the Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2018, after question time interrupted me last week. Well, what a week we've had, in more ways than one! We had former Minister Fifield, Mr Morrow, Mr Rue and even Mr Turnbull complete an almighty backflip. And, despite Mr Rue's gaffe, the board of the NBN Co, with the blessing of the government, appointed him as the next CEO of the NBN Co. Less than a day after NBN Co let the cat out of the bag that it had a plan to charge regional telecommunication users $20 more to access broadband than consumers in the city, the then Minister for Communications, Senator Fifield, made a humiliating retreat.
Last Wednesday evening the NBN Co's CFO, Mr Rue, revealed plans to charge regional customers $20 a month more for a 50 megabits per second plan than a customer in the city would pay. On Thursday morning, the NBN Co's Tasmanian spokesperson, Mr Russell Kelly, doubled down on the position during an ABC Hobart radio interview. Mr Kelly was asked, 'Is it fair that customers, who just by, I guess, where they live, have to pay more for a service that's available in the city?' Mr Kelly responded, 'Well, this is one of the realities of the internet'. What galling language. This is from the NBN Co that crows about how Tasmania is the first state to be connected, when we know that there are hundreds of homes across the state and families and small businesses on the edge of towns that are having to wait until at least the end of this year to get connected. Instead of working through the issue with the community, with its end users, NBN Co is simply saying that it's a reality that people in the bush need to pay more.
Labor quickly signalled that we would not have a bar of that. Minutes after the press conference, our shadow ministers for communications, Ms Rowland and Mr Jones, held a media conference calling on the government to intervene. We called on the National Party's Senator McKenzie, as the Minister for Regional Communications, and Senator Martin, as one conservative senator who supports a full-fibre NBN, to stand up to the Liberals and to stand up to NBN Co and demand that the regions get a fair go. Later that day, the capitulation was on, with the embarrassed former Minister Fifield declaring that NBN Co would engage in 'a fresh round of product consultations'. I'm sure we can all predict what regional consumers would have told NBN Co during those consultations. Except it's now been revealed that those consultations are a mirage, a smokescreen, or, as Senator Cash might phrase it, a whiteboard.
The respected communications industry online news website itnews.com.au included an updated report that the $20 slug on fixed wireless users had been outlined at an industry briefing on the Wednesday afternoon—a briefing that had been planned for at least a week. It was reported by iTnews that the new plans were presented along with the three-year road map. The briefing went for four hours, after which NBN Co's Mr Rue, the CFO, and Mr Ryan, the chief engineer, fronted the parliamentary committee hearing. The iTnews website reported that it understood the $65 price was presented to industry as a done deal. Industry were told on the Wednesday afternoon they would be sent paperwork about the new framework. It was also reported by iTnews that the new $20 charge would begin from Monday, 20 August, the Monday just gone. The next day, the NBN Co's CEO tried to mop up the mess. He said that it wasn't a 'foregone conclusion' that NBN Co would slug regional fixed wireless users $20 per month more for the same speed that their friends and colleagues in towns and cities on fixed lines were receiving. It can't be both a done deal and a consultation. If it was said to be a consultation, you have to ask why industry wasn't asked on the Wednesday; rather, they were told.
Listeners can draw their own conclusions. But, for me, this latest NBN debacle clearly suggests the minister has lost control over the NBN Co and that the NBN Co have lost an understanding of what is actually palatable to consumers. NBN Co began virtually pretending there was no hearing of the joint standing committee on the Wednesday night, that the CFO's comments had been a figment of everyone's imagination, and claiming no decision had been taken. They sought to wash the records, step back from their bungled admission and hide their secret charge. I understand the charge would have affected nine out of 10 regional households on a fixed wireless network if they chose to order a 50-megabits-per-second service—nine out of 10, which is 584,000 premises across the country.
Most of the time with the NBN, I hear cases of individuals who are disadvantaged. This is a huge cohort of Australian households, businesses and families, and often it is pot luck if you're on fixed wireless or fixed line. We've heard some shocking examples of people at the end of a street being assigned to fixed wireless, or whole new subdivisions being moved to fixed wireless instead of the NBN and the developer rolling out fibre to the home within the development. This then creates congestion on the network, so we've got an inferior network that will cost people more than the alternative. There is no consideration for fairness and no consideration for equity of access. And it is a step that will only increase that digital divide between the city and the bush, between those lucky enough to live in a full-fibre suburb and those nearby stuck on an inferior, more expensive fixed wireless service.
The backdown is welcome in the short term. But what it exposes is the calamity that the NBN has become under Mr Turnbull as communications minister and then as Prime Minister. A minister who was given the task of destroying the NBN is doing his very best to achieve Mr Abbott's task. It's ironic that this week, with the leadership speculation around energy policy, based on the differences between Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull, the government refuses to take a principled stance on the NBN. Instead of doing what the country needed and fighting Mr Abbott's wrecking ball against the NBN, the government capitulated and oversaw the crass politicisation of what should have been a bipartisan nation-building project. The NBN was manipulated, stretched, pushed and shoved into a model colloquially known by many as the multitechnology mess, a mess that combined the technology from three simple alternatives—fibre to the premises for 93 per cent of the population, and a mix of satellite and fixed wireless for the remainder—into a mishmash of fibre to the premises for the lucky; fibre to the curb for the somewhat unlucky; fibre to the node for the downright unlucky; fibre to the basement for those in apartment buildings and the like; overcrowded fixed wireless for many, many more than was originally predicted, including whole towns; and satellite for those in remote parts of the country or for those who find themselves out of sight of a congested fixed wireless tower. Under Mr Turnbull, Mr Abbott and Senator Fifield, the NBN has gone from the key infrastructure bridging the divide between our cities and our regions to a rollout that divides neighbourhoods, incentivises freeloading, punishes the regions and prices regular consumers out of fast broadband.
We had a charge last week that came about because we have weak Liberal and National parties bitterly divided by infighting and personalities that are incapable of adequately representing rural and regional Australians at the cabinet table. It is remarkable that we have a cabinet Minister for Regional Communications that allowed this charge to be floated. What is the point of being in office if you can't represent regional Australians, the people you claim so often to be the champions of? Under Labor, we have uniform wholesale pricing between the cities and the regions. The Prime Minister should not force regional Australians and regional businesses to pick up the bill for his mess. It is bad enough that the government created a digital divide based on technology. Now he wants to create one based on price, and his rural and regional MPs and senators will sit by in complete silence. If it were not for Labor, the charge would have been implemented from Monday, 20 August.
The problem is that this Prime Minister cannot comprehend what $264 a year means to regional families. If he could, he wouldn't allow it, but he has no idea. This is a policy decision permitted by a Prime Minister who is just so out of touch and a government that is completely out of touch. We're not talking about a few hundred households or businesses either. The best estimate we have is that 584,000 premises will be affected by this charge: 4,000 in the Northern Territory, 40,000 each in Tasmania and Western Australia, 60,000 in South Australia, 125,000 in Queensland, 150,000 in Victoria and 160,000 in New South Wales. In every corner of this country, people on the urban fringe and in our rural communities will be impacted by this charge, a charge necessitated because, under Prime Minister Turnbull, we have a second-rate NBN that is $20 billion over budget and four years behind schedule. We've got a second-rate NBN that's over budget and out of control because we've got ministers and a Prime Minister who have no control over their own corporation.
It is difficult to believe the minister had no idea what NBN Co were planning, especially given the duration of the consultation on these changes. Whoever the communications minister is should outline exactly what the government knew and when, and exactly what their office knew and when. Former Minister Cormann should outline what he knew and when, and what his office knew and when. Likewise, Minister McKenzie, while not a shareholder minister of NBN Co, is a minister within the Communications portfolio whose constituents include a vast number of people affected by these proposed changes. Each minister must outline what they knew, what their offices knew, and what they didn't do to stop NBN Co slugging fixed wireless users with a $20-a-month charge.
On this bill specifically, Labor has serious concern that this bill has been brought on to prop up the NBN corporate plan. The legislation has been conspicuously delayed for nearly two years. Just last week this bill was brought on for debate with a new implementation date of 1 July 2019. The upcoming release of NBN Co's corporate plan might offer a clue as to why the dysfunctional Turnbull government is in a sudden rush to pass its $7.10 per month internet tax. It's because NBN Co is required to release its pre-election corporate plan before the end of August 2018. The corporate plan will contain forecasts out to financial year 2022, but it will not disclose the assumptions that underpin financial forecasts beyond that year. If the government passes its internet tax in August 2018, not only would the price increases come into effect in the next term of parliament but it would also permit the government in this term of parliament to add the revenue from this internet tax onto the NBN corporate plan from 2022 out to year 2040. If the legislation does not pass the parliament in August 2018, that is no longer possible. Should the legislation conveniently pass the Senate this week, we will have learned two things about the minister: (1) his motivation was not about serving the broadband needs of regional Australia but rather the pre-election NBN corporate plan; and (2) he does not believe in his own policy, and that this is why the government delayed implementation of price increases until after the next election. All of this is being driven by a simple reality: Turnbull's second rate NBN is $20 billion over budget and four years behind schedule. It costs more and does less.