Senate debates

Tuesday, 26 August 2014


National Broadband Network Select Committee; Government Response to Report

6:35 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the government response to the Select Committee on the National Broadband Network interim report.

If you have followed the progress of the National Broadband Network project at all you will have quickly realised that the project has become the worst kind of political football. The project as we know it today was launched by Labor in April 2009—a vision that was supported at the time by the Greens and indeed the overwhelming majority of Australians. The aim is simple when you say it quickly—to deliver fast and affordable broadband to all Australians, no matter their location, and to deliver needed reforms to ensure fair competition in the telecommunications industry. It is fair to say that most participants in this debate have changed their views at one point or another in pursuit of this objective. The Labor Party, for example, began with a fibre-to-the-node project that was then quite substantially scaled up after the expert panel that they appointed to work out the economics came back and said that such a scheme would be obsolete on the day it was built, don't bother, go straight to a fibre-to-the-home rollout. There was a change of direction for the Labor Party.

For the coalition's part, when Senator Minchin was communications spokesperson—Acting Deputy President Bernardi will remember this—the coalition were fiercely opposed to a structural separation of Telstra and reforms to the underlying asymmetries in the wholesale broadband and telecommunications market. When Minister Turnbull took on the portfolio there was quite an abrupt change there for the coalition. So in the past people have shown a willingness to change their views as facts become available.

I think the aim of fast universal broadband to all Australians is still one that is worth strong support. Unfortunately, along the way something really disturbing has happened to the debate; it is almost like an insidious poison has crept into the discussion around the NBN Co. It started with a technology discussion around the particular kind of technology to bring to bear and the pros and cons of conducting a cost-benefit analysis. Senators probably do not need to be reminded that I am of the view that that is the wrong kind of instrument to bring to bear on a project such as this. Then the debate progressed to very personal attacks on the senior management of the company, the construction companies, their suppliers' tender processes and every level of oversight. Today, if you mention NBN Co in polite conversation, I think that people cannot hear that name without thinking about the incredible levels of venom, politics, backbiting and aggression that have contaminated the debate at every level. When it comes to the NBN, it seems our leaders cannot agree on anything. I think we are right at the precipice of doing the equivalent of what our forebears did—that is, rolling out different rail gauges in different states and territories with nothing matching up at the state lines. It was an infrastructure decision that might have made sense in very local contexts at the time but that later had enormous costs for people who had to come along afterwards and clean up the mess.

The reports that we are dealing with tonight represent some of the problems that we have fallen into with discussions around NBN and the rollout of telecommunications in Australia. One report was commissioned for the sole purpose of criticising the previous Labor government's creation of the NBN. One report was commissioned for the sole purpose of criticising the previous management of the project. Neither of these documents serves the parliament, the company or the general population of this country very well at all.

If NBN were a 12-month or two-year project, you could get away with it. If it were the kind of thing that a government could get up in one or two terms, the political polarisation and rapid changes of direction that occur would matter less. But the NBN is not that; it is much more akin to an electricity grid, a rail network or, for that matter, the road network. If you do not set down, in a cross-party way, standards and an agreed direction for the project, you end up short-changing yourself, blowing billions of dollars needlessly, frustrating the customers—that is, the entire Australian population—and going backwards fast. That is what I think has occurred in this instance. We know it is possible. Other countries around the world—more notably countries with large populations condensed into a fairly small area such as South Korea, Singapore and Japan, in particular—have successfully constructed end-to-end fast fibre networks that go all the way from the exchange, through the back-haul network to individual customers. It can be done. Australia is not out on a limb in deploying this technology.

It is a project that will take more than a decade to complete, because of that long lead time. We need a policy that the coalition is happy with, that the Labor Party is happy with and that crossbenchers—who are responsible for oversight of these kinds of things and for individual votes on market reform and restructuring, for example—are happy with. It is going to be deployed in the hands, at least for the next couple of years, of a Senate that has a more diverse and more active crossbench than any in modern political history. So it makes no sense for the incredible polarisation around the development of the NBN to continue to plague what I think we could get everyone here to agree is a critical piece of national infrastructure.

I will speak briefly on the interim report of the ongoing Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network inquiry. I have been involved in the committee since its inception, and before that I was involved in its predecessor, the Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network. We have discovered that all sides hold some truth and that all sides perhaps need to let go of some entrenched positions. We established that the former government's subcontracting arrangements that NBN Co put in place—effectively pyramid subcontracting—had so many different tiers of management and middle management that the people actually laying the pipes, digging the ducts and laying the cable were getting fundamentally and profoundly ripped off, which was one of the reasons that the company struggled to get the kind of volume rollout that it needed.

We also, I think, established beyond any reasonable doubt Minister Turnbull's intuition that a fibre-to-the-basement configuration in some areas is going to be much faster and cheaper than trying to put fibre up to every individual apartment dwelling. In some contexts—for example, with older building stock—it may make sense to do that, as Minister Turnbull, from his experience overseas, has been hinting at. But the fact of the matter is that most Australians do not live in high-rise apartments. We are an incredibly dispersed population; we are heavily urbanised, obviously, but most Australians live in the suburbs in detached or semidetached dwellings that need to be served by an individual strand of something—whether it be copper or glass fibre. I think and hope that the committee has laid to rest—for its members and anybody following its work—the idea that we could maybe just sit on our hands and wait for wireless to overtake everything. I think we have got through that degree of misapprehension of the fundamentals of the technology; at some point, you actually have to lay high-capacity fibre for wireless networks to function at all.

I think we have also established that the fibre-to-the-node build is extremely problematic. Under the trials that Minister Turnbull initiated of the so-called multitechnology mix—this mixed technology idea that we will use a bit of everything—there is still not a single customer connected to the network 10 or 11 months after the change of government and the change of policy. That tells us that the expert panel that Minister Conroy convened so many years ago probably got it right on the subject of very large-scale fibre to the node—not individual niches, where it makes sense, but at the largest scale, which the coalition seems to be embarking on—in that it will be obsolete on the day it is built. Those nodes will need to be ripped out and people will eventually need to be connected, if we are not to entrench the digital divide in this country, to an end-to-end fibre network.

One of the things that I think the last hearing of the committee established with a bit of diligence is that the government and the new NBN Co management include some individuals with a lot of experience in the telecommunications sector here and overseas. They are looking at what they can do to drive the cost down of the fibre-to-the-premises build-out. I think what we are potentially seeing—if we can draw the sting out and pull the politics out of the debate—is a convergence of technology and consensus. Yes, there will be a bit of a multi-technology mix. There will be a bit of fibre to the basement, there will be a bit of wireless and there will obviously be satellite infill. But I think we can see our way towards a National Broadband Network that returns to that original vision of the vast majority—a percentage of the population in the high 90s or the mid-90s—being served by an end-to-end fibre network. That actually looks to be the best option.

This is the offer the Greens are putting on the table tonight and in all of our work in this space: pull the politics out of it and get on with building a network that provides a universal broadband service to a country that needs infrastructure like this more than ever. I look forward to working with the crossbenches to pull this project out of the ditch. I look forward to working with those on the coalition side who also agree that this is a network that really needs the politics pulled out of it—so that we can actually get on with the job. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.