Senate debates

Monday, 13 August 2018


Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2018, Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2018; Second Reading

8:56 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Innovation) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Telecommunication Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2018 and the Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2018. Labor will be proposing several amendments. We will seek to reduce the scope and the impact of the $84-a-year internet levy on households connected to existing greenfield networks. This will buy sufficient time to ensure future arrangements can be reviewed in appropriate time in conjunction with broader reform decisions. Greenfield networks are small, non-NBN operators who typically deploy fibre in new estates in outer metropolitan suburbs. Second, Labor will seek to cap the government's levy charge to prevent the possibility that the base charge could increase to $10 per month, as currently allowed for under the draft legislation. Third, Labor will introduce a series of NBN related transparency amendments which seek to improve the public availability of rollout information, improve transparency of the network, and improve transparency over the business case.

Before moving on to the broadband levy, I wish to note Labor supports schedule 3 of this bill. The proposed statutory infrastructure provider—SIP—scheme will provide certainty that as we move beyond the initial NBN roll-out in 2021 the community will continue to have certainty about its ability to get access to broadband services at their new home or business. In the House of Representatives the Minister for Urban Infrastructure and Cities, bizarrely, declared this bill to be an 'historic' reform. It is, unfortunately, nothing of the sort. We would encourage the government to refrain from such exaggerations here in the Senate. In practice, schedule 3 largely codifies an obligation that already exists in the NBN statement of expectations. There is nothing historic about this kind of reform.

Furthermore, the bill proposes to put this, in effect, after 11.6 million premises have already been passed by the National Broadband Network. So, let's be clear—the primary function of schedule 3 is to provide certainty about the status quo from 2021 onwards. Labor supports this, and considers it is a sensible and natural step, but let's not misrepresent what it actually means.

In contrast, the original commitment by Labor in 2009 was historically significant, particularly for regional and rural communities. A national broadband network was established to ensure that every Australian would have access to high-speed broadband irrespective of where they lived or worked. As a result, nearly three million homes and businesses across rural and regional Australia will have access to high-speed broadband, a sizeable proportion of which had no access to any broadband after 11 years of inaction under the Howard government. This was the single most important initiative to bridge the city-regional divide when it came to broadband in this country. Labor is proud of this achievement, and those who supported it in the Senate should be as well.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for this government's support. On 25 March 2011, the coalition voted against legislation to establish the NBN to deliver universal access to high-speed broadband for all Australians. The National Party voted against it. This very Minister for Communications voted against it. Schedule 3 is a concession that the coalition, who left regional Australia in a broadband backwater, have now signed up to a principle Labor and the parliament established nearly a decade ago. Schedule 3 is a sensible step and we will support its passage.

I now wish to turn to schedule 4, the government's broadband levy. Against the backdrop of higher energy bills and cost-of-living pressures, this government is today seeking to increase household broadband prices. It's also notable that the minister has delayed debate on the bill for over 18 months and its implementation by two years. So what we've seen, effectively, is delay, delay, delay. When the minister released the draft legislation in late 2016, he stated the government's intention was for the legislation to come into effect on 1 July 2017. Six months later, he changed the start date to 1 July 2018. And today the minister brings an amendment to push the start date back to 1 July 2019. So what the minister's actually done is repeatedly delayed developments such that the implementation date of the proposed internet tax would become 1 July 2019, which conveniently for this government falls into the next term of parliament.

I ask my Senate colleagues: what does this mean? What does it tell us about what this minister thinks about his own policy? He knows that what he proposes will increase cost-of-living pressures on families. He knows that what he proposes is poorly designed, as argued by both the ACCC and the Productivity Commission. Moreover, the minister knows the revenue raised by this levy does not address the long-term economics of the multi-technology mix, nor does it establish a sustainable funding mechanism or do anything for regional investment.

If anyone is wondering why the minister is now suddenly in a rush to pass this legislation in August, let me offer a potential explanation. NBN Co is due to release its corporate plan before the end of August 2018. This is the latest NBN corporate plan that will be issued prior to the next election. It's the last one that we'll see before we head to an election. The corporate plan will contain forecasts out to financial year 2022 but will not disclose the assumptions that underpin revenue and cost forecasts beyond that year. If the government passes this bill in August, not only would the price increases from the levy 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 into the NBN corporate plan from 2022 out to the year 2040. So what we're seeing is a government that have determined to take an opportunity to fudge the numbers, having undertaken delay, delay and delay. It just shows how desperate the government are.

Meanwhile, the NBN has spent over $177 million on buying new copper cabling. It's hard to put 'new' and 'copper' in the same sentence, but that's what this government have done, and they've done it to the tune of $177 million. They've wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on pointless advertising campaigns and their executives were paid over $66 million in bonuses last year—all this with little to no oversight from the government whatsoever. The proposed levy before the Senate is, in effect, an internet tax that will increase the internet bills of households and businesses on non-NBN networks by up to $7.10 per month, or $84 a year. Estimates of the number of services affected by this levy range from between 240,000 to 450,000, with that number growing over time. The levy charge could increase over time to $10 per month, or $120 a year, based on how the legislation is currently drafted. To be clear at the outset, Labor considers the broadband levy to be poorly designed, the targeting of certain networks to be arbitrary and the need to even contemplate its existence in this place to be highly regrettable.

It's important to note the government is increasing pressure on broadband prices across a number of fronts. It follows recent steps to establish the same wholesale NBN price for 12-, 25- and 50-megabits-per-second services, effectively raising entry-level prices for consumers by stealth. Further, the ABC has reported NBN pricing changes are also being considered that would force regional Australians on the NBN fixed wireless network to pay higher costs for the same speed as consumers in the city.

There's a clear link between the issues we are grappling with here today and the cost blowouts associated with Malcolm Turnbull's multitechnology mix. In 2013, the now Prime Minister promised to deliver the NBN for $29.5 billion and he promised to have it complete by 2016. As it currently stands, the government are $20 billion over budget on the NBN and are four years behind what they promised Australians. That is clearly a failure and very, very different from what they said to the Australian people they were going to do. In November 2014, the Liberals promised to deliver the NBN for $41 billion. Again, as it stands, the government are $8 billion over that promise too. The multitechnology mix that they hailed so often as a great breakthrough has not been faster. It certainly has not been faster, but it's not been cheaper either. In fact, Malcolm Turnbull's multitechnology mix has been slower and more expensive. It's now forecast to cost $49 billion and will not be complete until July 2020. In comparison, the original fibre-to-the-premises model would have required $45 billion in peak funding, with all Australians having access to the NBN by the end of 2021. Every key assumption which underpinned this business plan has withstood the test of time. Whilst the cost per premise of deploying fibre has been reduced between 40 per cent and 50 per cent in New Zealand, in the US and in the UK, the build cost per premise of the HFC over NBN has increased by 54 per cent over the same period. Clearly there's something going wrong here under this government's rollout. Critically, beyond its $49 billion price tag, the multi-technology mix costs more to maintain. It generates less revenue and it's much more exposed to wireless competition. Fibre would have preserved an indefinite performance and reliability edge. Yet copper has already surrendered that edge, to the detriment of consumers and taxpayers.

It's interesting to note that modelling from the December 2013 NBN Strategic review indicates that the shift from a fibre model to a multi-technology mix would push up maintenance costs by $200 million per annum. Further, that same report indicated that a fibre network would have generated an extra $300 million per annum in revenue. Together, that's a $500 million earnings gap according to the government's own figures. This earnings gap is nearly two-thirds of the estimated losses in the satellite and fixed wireless footprint. It's more than 10 times what this levy is expected to raise. This is notable, because the 2013 Strategic review was a partisan document, quite literally drafted by the Prime Minister's mates, and was subsequently exposed as being predicated on assumptions that systematically overstated the cost and time to deploy fibre, while disingenuously understating the costs of switching to copper and HFC. Yet if such a flawed document concedes that the multi-technology mix has created at least a half a billion per annum earnings hole, we need to ask ourselves: what's the actual extent of the mess created by this government's mismanagement of the NBN?

Turning to specifics of this levy, the levy places the charge on a narrow base of networks, and in some cases is quite arbitrary in the networks it applies its levy to. For example, the NBN was set up to serve households and small businesses, because this is where market failure for high-speed fibre broadband existed. The enterprise market was well-served and had competition. The NBN wishes to compete in the enterprise market. Good luck to them. We genuinely wish them well. Yet the government is now proposing to tax enterprise networks, despite the fact that the arrival of the NBN is reducing the revenues of the incumbents who were previously competing and serving the market. It highlights the confused logic of this levy. The narrow base concentrates the impact on a few participants, while the revenue the levy raises is, in the broad sweep of things, immaterial to the challenges facing the NBN business case. It will be felt by those who are impacted but will do very little to support broader policy objectives. It's no surprise that the ACCC and the Productivity Commission have criticised the design of this levy. Further, the government is seeking to apply the broadband levy to greenfield networks that have already been deployed. This is despite greenfield networks being in new development estates, where NBN Co has not spent money, has not deployed a network, is not required to deploy a network and is not experiencing revenue leakage. This retrospective application is concerning. Greenfield network businesses are modest in their size and have made capital investments based on certain assumptions.

Given the legitimate concerns about the poor design and ineffectiveness of this levy, Labor will propose two key amendments. First, we will be seeking to cap the levy charge at $7.10. The current legislation allows it to increase to $10 per month—to put it another way, $120 per year. Capping it at $7.10 would not permit this to happen. In a scenario in which the levy charge increased to $10 per month, it would be unfair to families and distortionary to the telecommunications market. It remains unclear whether the charge could reach that level, but given the lack of transparency from this government on the costs of the rollout and uncertainty over the number of premises within scope of the levy, the Senate should not be willing to take that chance. This amendment is a prudent safeguard to protect consumers and households from further unintended impacts of the levy.

The government has sought to argue that the levy as drafted establishes a sustainable long-term funding mechanism for the non-commercial parts of the NBN network. The NBN's CEO does not sign up to this view, because in October last year he called for a tax on wireless services. The ACCC does not sign up to this view, and the Productivity Commission does not sign up to this view. In its communications market study, the ACCC observed:

Greater substitution across technologies would also bring into question the suitability of the RBS charge as a mechanism to fund non-commercial NBN services.

This view has also been put by the Productivity Commission in its review of the USO, where it observed:

The funding of nbn's non-commercial services should, moreover, not be considered independently of universal service policy reforms.

…   …   …

The Regional Broadband Scheme is proposed to (at least initially) include only a narrow levy base. In principle, the choice of funding model for non-commercial services should seek to minimise distortions in the telecommunications market, the risk of which is heightened with a narrowly-based long-term industry levy. As such, the Government may need to revisit the merits of alternative funding arrangements for nbn's non-commercial services.

Clearly, these two expert bodies are saying this levy will not stand the test of time. By capping the charge at $7.10, Labor is making clear it does not have confidence in the government's arguments either.

Labor's view is that the most useful policy function this levy can perform is to establish a price signal that deters the inefficient duplication of fixed-line infrastructure, deters cherry-picking of profitable parts of the NBN footprint and establishes a more level playing field in the market segments where that's appropriate. Labor has consulted broadly with the sector on this principle, and the logic of our approach is respected and understood. The second change to the levy that Labor will propose seeks to provide concession for premiums connected to existing greenfield networks on 1 July 2019. We look forward to having our amendments considered by the Senate.

9:16 pm

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The Australian Greens welcome the introduction of the statutory infrastructure provider obligations set out in schedule 3 of the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2018. The SIP obligations will ensure that Australians have access to high-speed broadband with minimum speed requirements of 25 megabits per second, and there are requirements for SIP services to support voice services on fixed-line and wireless platforms. These requirements are consistent with the Productivity Commission's review of the telecommunications universal service obligation.

We strongly support the rollout of the NBN to regional and rural Australia, and we acknowledge the need to cross-subsidise non-commercial services. However, we do not support the implementation of the Regional Broadband Scheme as proposed in schedule 4 of the competition and consumer bill and in the Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2018. As such, I would like the question on the second reading of the bills divided, as I intend to vote for the competition and consumer bill and against the Regional Broadband Scheme charge.

The Australian Greens are committed to ensuring that all Australians have access to affordable, high-quality internet services. Fast, reliable broadband has the potential to transform the lives of all the inhabitants of this nation. The NBN is not just a piece of infrastructure. Access to digital networks is a right, and it is incumbent upon government to make it accessible, available and affordable.

Australia's internet is lagging behind the rest of the world—this is the stark reality that must confront this government—in both speed and affordability. The Ookla speed test for May 2018, a global index, places Australia at 56th in the world for internet speed, falling behind Panama and Siberia, and well below the global average. Conversely, Australia is ranked eighth in the world for mobile broadband speeds, doubling the global average at 50 megabits per second, versus 30 megabits per second for fixed broadband.

Australia ranks 57th in the world for fixed broadband affordability, according to Digital Australia's State of the nation report. The Regional Broadband Scheme proposes a narrowly targeted, technology specific tax which is not robust to changing telecommunications technologies and markets and thus risks distorting competition between technology types. In response to my questioning during budget estimates, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission stated that it would likely have distortionary effects on the market. It also places excessive burden on a narrow segment of this same market. Australians are already struggling to pay for NBN's unaffordable, high prices, and this tax serves to slug them with another $7.10 per month. Both the ACCC and the Productivity Commission have stated that a preferable alternative would be direct budget funding. The Productivity Commission also recommended that the RBS and the funding of NBN non-commercial services should not be considered independently of the telecommunications universal service obligation.

The Regional telecommunications review 2015 recommended development of a new broad based consumer communication fund for voice and data services, thus replacing the USO's telecommunications industry levy with a levy to support loss-making regional infrastructure and services, with scope to include subsidies for non-commercial NBN services. Such an overarching regulatory structure would avoid piecemeal and short-term regulatory adjustments by putting a more relevant and comprehensive framework in place. Without a sunset clause, the RBS also risks becoming an entrenched tax that is used for purposes beyond the intentions of the scheme, with cost basis used for RBS pricing already having shifted considerably.

The Australian Greens support updating the telecommunications universal service obligation for the 21st century, based on telco needs of Australia now and into the future. We support Australians in rural, regional and remote areas having equitable access to internet and voice services, which is why we support families and businesses having enough data to meet their needs at a fair price, and using Sky Muster technology as a last resort only where no other options are possible. It is why we support extending the Mobile Black Spot Program, and the ACCC broadband monitoring program, to include fixed wireless and satellite services.

The Australian Greens support an NBN that is affordable for all Australians without compromising on quality, which is why we support a review of the NBN's pricing structures as well as an update to the Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code and the empowering of the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman. We do not support this short-sighted, narrow-based partial duplication of the USO that will further drive up already unaffordable prices for Australians. The government are, once again, trying to slap a bandaid on a gaping wound rather than fixing the underlying infrastructure servicing needs of all Australians and ensuring that everyone can access a fast, reliable and affordable National Broadband Network.

9:24 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to speak on the Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2018 and the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2018. These two bills together give effect to the government's Regional Broadband Scheme. Labor will not be opposing these bills, which together legislate certainty that premises in Australia can continue to access broadband services beyond the initial NBN rollout.

The bills also introduce a new telecommunications levy, a broadband tax that will add $84 a year to the bills of up to 400,000 consumers and businesses on non-NBN networks. Given the current state of the economics of the NBN, it's difficult for Labor to oppose this tax outright, but we do consider its imposition to be highly unfortunate. This broadband tax, which will be passed on to consumers, is essentially seeking to undo some of the cost blowouts that have resulted from Mr Turnbull's mishandling of the NBN rollout.

As I've said before, the abbreviation 'MTM' is very appropriate because, while it purports to stand for the multi-technology mix, we know what it really means. What it really means is 'Malcolm Turnbull's mess'. And it amazes me that, after years and years in government, those opposite still think they can fool Australians into thinking that Labor is somehow responsible for the NBN mess that the government got themselves into, the mess that has now led to Mr Turnbull imposing his broadband tax. Their efforts are a monumental exercise in historical revisionism and one which would make the Flat Earth Society very, very envious.

I'll take a bit of time to remind those listening to proceedings about the history of this issue, just so we can get the facts straight. We know that, in the early 2000s, Australians were calling out for broadband policy. After selling Telstra as a vertically integrated monopoly, with no vision for extending internet access, the Howard government left us in a broadband backwater. And the Nationals, who were supposed to stand up for the bush, failed to push effectively for decent telecommunications in regional Australia. But, as many, many Australians have come to realise, the Nationals are merely a lapdog to their senior coalition partners. As I've pointed out time and time again in this chamber on so many issues, the Nationals have failed to stand up for regional Australia for decades.

After 18 failed broadband plans over the course of 12 years—that's 18 failed broadband plans over the course of 12 years—it was left to a Labor government to deliver a national broadband network that would provide universal coverage to regional and remote Australia. The National Broadband Network was, and remains, Australia's largest ever infrastructure project, and it's a policy of which I am extremely proud. Australians would have continued to have pride in all aspects of this project had it not been butchered by those opposite.

An important aspect of the NBN was the universal wholesale pricing regime. This would mean that the NBN users in the cities would help to cross-subsidise broadband in higher cost and less profitable regional areas. It would also restore the level playing field in telecommunications that was abandoned by the Howard government with the sale of Telstra. The universal wholesale pricing regime was supported by Labor's original business case for the NBN.

Yet we have recently heard news that NBN Co is considering abandoning universal wholesale pricing by introducing a higher charge for 50-megabit plans in the bush. The charge, according to broadband providers, could be as much as 44 per cent higher than for the equivalent fixed-line service in the city. That's outrageous. It comes off the back of NBN Co setting the same wholesale price for 12-, 25- and 50-megabit-per-second plans, which will have the effect of increasing entry-level broadband prices.

On top of this, Mr Turnbull now wants to introduce a new broadband tax. The only reason Mr Turnbull needs to introduce this broadband tax is the mess he's made of the NBN, switching from the full fibre rollout for all fixed-line connections to his inferior copper- and HFC-based network.

Let's not forget that, when Mr Turnbull was appointed shadow communications minister in Mr Abbott's opposition, the then Leader of the Opposition's instructions to him were to 'demolish the NBN'. That's right; the instructions to him were to 'demolish' the NBN. In government, Mr Turnbull carried out this instruction with great enthusiasm, replacing 21st-century optical fibre to the premises with a hodgepodge of old technologies, including HFC and the existing, decaying copper network. As Prime Minister, he continues to carry out Mr Abbott's instructions to this very day.

We were promised an NBN that would cost taxpayers $29.5 billion. The cost now has blown out to $49 billion. Not only will Mr Turnbull's inferior NBN cost $4 billion more to build than Labor's; it will also generate less revenue. We were told Mr Turnbull's second-rate version of the NBN would be rolled out by 2016, and it's now due to be completed by 2020. And what do we get as a result of all these cost blowouts and delays? We get an NBN that cannot deliver the speeds that Australians need. That's what we've got. That's what we are getting: an NBN that cannot deliver the speeds that Australians need and demand, an NBN that leaves Australia's economy mired in the 20th century with average speeds lagging behind nations such as Estonia and Bulgaria. There are no budgeted plans to upgrade the network technology even as far out as 2040. This means that, under the Liberal plans, we're stuck with this dud network for the next 22 years.

Senator Urquhart interjecting

It's a very long time, Senator Urquhart. If the network cannot meet the needs of many broadband customers now, how many will want to purchase an NBN plan in 22 years time?

To give you an idea of the impact on revenues, according to NBN Co's own analysis, the government's inferior copper network will cost $200 million more per year to maintain and operate and will generate $300 million per year less in revenue relative to Labor's fibre-to-the-premises network. That's a $500-million-a-year revenue gap.

I've said many times in this place before and I will say again that the Turnbull government's decision to base the NBN on outdated technology has severely damaged Australia's competitiveness in the digital economy. As Professor Rod Tucker from the University of Melbourne has said, by the time the NBN rollout is complete, the technology will already be obsolete. Eventually we will catch up, but it will cost us even more billions and many more years of delay, and our economy will be held back for decades.

The government's recent thought bubble about rolling out a 5G network is an admission that their flawed, second-rate copper network has comprehensively failed to keep pace with the needs of Australian broadband consumers. Nearly one in three broadband consumers on Mr Turnbull's second-rate copper network can't achieve over 50 megabits per second. Some customers are seen reporting that their fibre-to-the-node NBN connection is slower than their old ADSL service. Yes, they're saying it's slower. A survey by consumer advocacy group CHOICE reported that 60 per cent of broadband customers on the NBN reported issues in the previous six months, including 44 per cent who reported very slow speeds and 42 per cent reporting disconnections, drop-outs and performance issues. A recent survey of business experiences conducted by the NSW Business Chamber found that switching to the NBN was costing small businesses an average of $9,000 in delays, disruptions and loss of sales. Forty-three per cent of the 850 businesses surveyed reported being either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the NBN. So, as we can see, something is really wrong here.

Similar stories were told at a forum in Howrah in Hobart that I co-hosted last year alongside shadow minister for communications Michelle Rowland and my Tasmanian Labor colleagues Julie Collins and Brian Mitchell. Among problems residents attending the forum reported were issues such as the performance and reliability of NBN services delivered over the fibre-to-the-node network; disappointment that Mr Turnbull has denied Tasmanian households and businesses a future-proof fibre connection and instead lumped them with poor quality ageing copper; slow speeds; dropouts and variations in service quality, with some questioning why they were being sold NBN plans with service quality and speeds that the network is not capable of delivering to their home; and the lack of accountability and consistent blame-shifting between retail service providers and NBN Co when there are faults. Of course, Tasmania's not unique, and I understand that Ms Rowland has had similar stories reported to her from forums right across Australia. It's because of the problems customers are experiencing with the slow time frame for connections and fault repairs and missed technician appointments that Labor has announced that we would introduce a service guarantee. Labor's service guarantee would provide clear standards for connection and fault repair time frames and establish penalties for underperformance.

The outgoing NBN chief, Bill Morrow, knows who's to blame for the network failures, and it seems Mr Morrow's impending retirement has made him somewhat less restrained in telling a few home truths about the NBN. Amongst Mr Morrow's recent pronouncements are that the multi-technology mix is responsible for poor customer experiences with the NBN and that the copper network has led to slower speeds and a higher fault rate. Many people who have been following the NBN rollout will probably roll their eyes at Mr Morrow's exercise in stating the bleeding obvious. But it's a big deal for the chief executive, who was responsible for overseeing the rollout, to make these admissions. As critical as some may be of Mr Morrow's legacy, the fact is that the multi-technology mix was the brainchild of the former communications minister, now Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull. Mr Morrow was given the unenviable task of rolling out this mess the best he could—or, to put it another way, he was given a not so pleasantly flavoured sandwich and forced to eat it.

It is ironic that prior to the 2013 election Mr Turnbull encouraged other broadband providers to compete directly with the NBN and now he wants to tax the very providers that he encouraged. The proposed levy deters other broadband providers from duplicating NBN infrastructure by rolling out broadband in more profitable areas. In doing so, they will have to make their own contribution to support the obligation that NBN Co has to remote and regional Australia. The ACCC has expressed concerns about this levy, saying: 'Greater substitution across technologies would also bring into question the suitability of the Regional Broadband Scheme charge as a mechanism to fund non-commercial services.'

The Productivity Commission has also said this levy should not be introduced until there is a proper reform of the universal service obligation. In its review of the USO the commission observed:

The funding of NBN's non-commercial services should, moreover, not be considered independently of universal service policy reforms.


The Regional Broadband Scheme is proposed to … include only a narrow levy base. In principle, the choice of funding model for non-commercial services should seek to minimise distortions in the telecommunications market, the risk of which is heightened with a narrowly-based long-term industry levy. As such, the Government may need to revisit the merits of alternative funding arrangements for nbn's non-commercial services.

So it's clear that there is widespread concern about the poor design of the government's internet levy, which not only increases prices but also seeks to impose the cost burden on a very narrow base. As I said, Labor will not oppose this levy outright, but we will seek to improve the legislation, recognising that it is the Turnbull government's mismanagement of Australia's largest-ever infrastructure project that has necessitated parts of this new broadband tax.

Labor recognised, when we commenced the rollout of the NBN, that there was the potential for other broadband providers to compete with the network or to roll out their own infrastructure. But the potential for competition from other providers is greater when this government is using outdated technology to roll out the NBN. Had the government continued to follow Labor's plan to roll out the fibre-to-the-premises NBN, the long-term economics of the project would have stacked up without the need for a new broadband tax. After all, the bulk of revenue to cross-subsidise broadband in regional Australia will come from the fixed-line footprint.

If you have a fixed-line service that consists of fibre to the premises, one with reliable connections that can guarantee minimum speeds, then it stands to reason it will generate more revenue than an unreliable, outdated, copper based network. It will preserve an indefinite performance and reliability edge, unlike an outdated copper network. It's Mr Turnbull's broadband tax that makes up the difference, and it would've been completely unnecessary had he adopted Labor's plan and rolled out the network that Australians want and need. Mr Turnbull now owns this tax, and it's for him to explain why, when he and his colleagues want to give big business an $80 billion tax cut, households on non-NBN broadband plans have to pay an extra $84 a year to help prop up his failed, obsolete and inferior network, which is $20 billion over budget and four years behind schedule.

I now move to the other aspect of this bill, which is the Statutory Infrastructure Provider regime. This important reform provides Australians with certainty about universal access to high-speed broadband beyond the rollout of the NBN. While Labor initiated this reform almost a decade ago through the statement of expectation and issues to the NBN Co board, the government is now proposing to enshrine it in legislation. We agree that this is a natural step and appropriate, and we will support it. But let's not forget that when the Liberals were in opposition it took them some considerable time to embrace this principle. Demonstrating his ignorance of the importance of broadband, the then opposition leader, Mr Abbott, described Australia's largest infrastructure project as 'essentially a video entertainment system'. A year later, Mr Turnbull was describing the National Broadband Network as 'the most extreme example of state intervention to support broadband' and 'the telecommunications version of Cuba'. To describe the NBN enshrining the notion of universal access to broadband as some kind of communist ideal was clearly out of step with the sentiment of the Australian public. And when those opposite finally embraced the principle of universal access, they didn't do so on their own. They had to be dragged to the realisation, kicking and screaming, by the Australian public, who understood their own need for broadband. Only two years after dismissing the idea of universal access, Mr Turnbull was promising to deliver it, but sooner and at less cost. Well, we know what's happened there, and we can see today that promise isn't going so well for Mr Turnbull or his government. But I welcome the Turnbull government finally embracing the notion of universal access to broadband.

Like power, water and phone service, broadband is now recognised as an essential service for households and businesses. Of course, we're still stuck with the legacy of Mr Abbott's 2013 comment that '25 megs is enough for the average household', as five years later this sentiment is continuing to drive the Liberals' broadband policy. Having established the principle of universal access to broadband, Labor will of course support moves for this principle to be legislated. We would, however, encourage those opposite to go a step further and embrace the principle of universal access to fast, 21st-century broadband, a futureproof broadband network that will meet the needs of Australians now and for generations to come. But I'm certainly not holding my breath waiting for that to happen.

In the meantime we're stuck with a National Broadband Network that cost more to build than Labor's original plan yet is able to achieve less in terms of speed and applications, a network which, because it is failing economically, has to be propped up by Mr Turnbull's new broadband tax. It's unfortunate that we are where we're at as a result of the Turnbull government's gross mismanagement of the NBN. While the multi-technology-mix egg will be difficult to unscramble, it's not too late for those opposite to admit they got it wrong and to at least start to deploy a 21st-century NBN in the fixed-line areas where design and construction hasn't commenced.

9:44 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I note that the Senate will shortly be adjourning, so I will begin my remarks and continue them when the debate resumes, which I understand may not be until next week, given the business before the Senate for the remainder of this week. For the many thousands of people listening at home, you'll have to tune back in to hear the remaining 16 minutes of my speech, and I'm pleased about that because it gives me a little bit of time to write the next 16 minutes of my speech! I'll see how I go for the next four minutes. Hopefully we're down to about 3½ minutes now.

I'll use the remaining time before the adjournment debate to outline the general purpose of the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2018 and Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2018. These bills have two main objectives, as has already been enunciated by Senator Bilyk. Firstly, they legislate with certainty that all premises in Australia can continue to access high-speed broadband infrastructure beyond the NBN rollout. That is an obligation that already exists but, by including it in this legislation, it takes things a step further and gives Australians legislative certainty around that obligation. The second objective of these bills is to introduce a telecommunications levy that will, on our and other people's estimates, add about $84 per year to the bills of up to 400,000 consumers and businesses on non-NBN networks.

The first aspect, providing legislative certainty that all premises will be able to continue to access high-speed broadband infrastructure, says something about this government's implementation and rollout of the NBN, that it needs to take the additional step of enshrining in legislation the level of certainty that all Australians are entitled to: that they will be able to continue to access high-speed broadband infrastructure. In this day and age, we know that having access to high-quality telecommunications, whether it be broadband internet or mobile phone services or other telecommunications services, is the lifeblood of business around the country and globally and is also important for individuals in their own households. It says something about the appalling rollout of the NBN under this government that, to provide Australians with some level of confidence about their access to telecommunications going forward, the government need to now enshrine that in legislation. From a Labor perspective, we don't have any issue with it being enshrined in legislation—and we will be supporting that—but it is a good statement of the level of concern that exists in the Australian community about this government's rollout that it needs to take that additional step.

In the second phase of my remarks, whenever we should resume, I'll be happy to provide the Senate with some of the instances that have been brought to my attention by constituents of mine in Queensland—particularly in regional Queensland—about the poor level of service that they have received from the NBN and from telecommunications providers in general. Hopefully, enshrining this level of certainty in legislation will provide regional Queenslanders with the certainty that they have not yet had when accessing telecommunications that they are entitled to in the modern era.

The second aspect of these bills is to introduce a telecommunications levy. It is deeply regrettable that, because of this government's botched rollout of the NBN, we now see the need for a regional broadband levy. Labor will have more to say about this in committee. We think that some amendments can be made that will improve what the government is putting forward, but we won't be opposing this outright as we understand that, under this government's rollout, the NBN has become a basket case. Financial difficulties have emerged, and something needs to be done to try to bring that into line.

As I travel around Queensland, no matter where you go, I have been amazed how unifying concern and discontent with the NBN is. My electorate office is on the Gold Coast. It is one of the issues that we receive the most complaints about, both from households and businesses alike. When I spend time in Central Queensland, the other area that I'm mainly responsible for, it's the same.

Debate interrupted.