Grievance Debate – National Broadband Network

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Mr PITT (Hinkler) (17:30): I rise to speak on a divisive issue of great concern and of need in my electorate of Hinkler. Since coming to government my office has been inundated with complaints and inquiries about Labor’s National Broadband Network. Some constituents argue that only fibre to the home will suffice and we have an even greater number of residents at the other end of the spectrum who say that doing so will make the cost of connecting simply unaffordable. The median weekly personal income in Bundaberg is just $411 and, when you consider that the median weekly rental is $240, internet is a luxury that few in my electorate can afford. Hinkler also has a older than average population.

Many of our older residents say that they have no desire to connect to the internet at home and they question why their taxes should be used to pay for it. They are also concerned about the costs of switching over their medical aids and their alarm devices. For end users who only have a home phone line with no internet or broadband services there is a government program that may cover some or all of the cost of the necessary wiring changes. There are residents who want NBN and better telephone reception but they do not want telecommunications towers constructed near their homes.

There are whole suburbs without reliable internet connection: Urraween, Pacific Haven, Burnett Heads, Redridge and Buxton. In fact, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 13,000 Hinkler residents have no internet connection whatsoever, 1,600 have dial-up and almost 33,000 have broadband. To give you a simple example, Avoca is a suburb of Bundaberg located less than two kilometres from the Central Queensland University. It is within walking distance of the major shopping centre and several schools. Countless Avoca residents have contacted me. We have tradesmen who spend the majority of their time on the road and they rely on their home internet to download plans, drawings and diagrams. Their clients expect that they are able to access documents electronically. As a former tradesmen and as a currently registered professional electrical engineer, I completely understand their concerns. If you are a small business that works all day on an hourly rate and then you return home to do your night-time billing, your forward planning and your quoting, and with moves towards online quoting systems in particular from government departments, you simply cannot quote on larger jobs if you do not have access to a reasonable connection. You cannot download major drawings, you cannot do online training or assessments, things that you could do outside of your normal working hours.

Apps, updates, Facebook and all those other additional mechanisms are very difficult to manage if you do not have a good connection. Small business is very time poor. This also includes things like their payment systems. You want to be certain that you can pay your wages of a night-time. That certainly will not happen if you keep losing your dial-up connection to whichever banking organisation you may well be working with. So I can really relate to their problems.

Some of those also have students who are nearing the end of their high school studies. As a father of three children, two of whom are still under 10, I can understand the issues around download. Who would have thought 25 gigabytes of data would not be sufficient for a family in this day and age? However, with continuing changes in technology it is clear to me that you will need more and more download and more and more speed in the future. Most of those are around portable devices. So what happens is that these students attending university locally are forced to leave home because they simply cannot do the work they should be able to. Downloading a lecture or submitting an assignment is near impossible in Avoca. Wireless has been costly and dropouts are continuous. Dial-up is simply archaic. The current broadband network is at capacity for the Avoca area. There are no further ports available. Avoca residents are just that little bit too far from the exchange. These residents are caught in the middle of a stalemate. Telecommunications providers will not invest or extend their fixed-line network until they know what NBN Co has planned.

In my maiden speech I said I would do everything possible to provide opportunities to the young people of my electorate, and I mean it. For too long our young talent has been Hinkler’s greatest export. One of the ways we can minimise this exodus would be to fix what has to date been the most wasteful and mismanaged infrastructure project in Australian history.

In December last year, we released the Strategic Review of the National Broadband Network. It found that, if Labor’s policies were left in place, Australian households would pay up to 80 per cent more for broadband, with bills increasing by $43 per month. The rollout is currently two years behind schedule, with final completion due 11 years later than promised by Kevin Rudd. The cost to taxpayers of completing the NBN under Labor’s plan has blown out to $73 billion. That is $29 billion more than we were told.

It is recommended that the project now be completed using a mix of technologies to save the taxpayer $32 billion, keep monthly bills lower and deliver the NBN to all Australians four years sooner than under Labor’s plan. Now nine out of 10 Australians will receive download speeds of 50 megabytes per second or more by 2019. An average broadband bill will cost $72 per month using a mix of technologies, compared to $139 under Labor’s plan. When you consider that fewer than 400 million of the world’s 1.6 billion internet devices are PCs, it is easy to see why using a mix of technologies is ideal. People are simply moving towards portable wireless devices.

NBN Co has commenced community consultation in the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay council regions. This is for the construction of fixed wireless internet towers. The towers will cover many of the rural parts of my electorate where the distances are too vast for fixed-line broadband. Residents from the Welcome Creek and Gooburrum areas are invited to attend a session at St George Hall, at South Kolan, on 1 April between 3 and 6 pm. People living in Buxton, Redridge and North Isis can attend the Isis Cultural Centre, in Childers, on 2 April. Moore Park and Avondale residents, who are in the neighbouring electorate of Flynn, can attend the Moore Park community centre hall on 3 April. Further forums will be announced in coming weeks.

To date we have had a number of discussions with council representatives in regard to co-location of mobile network assets on NBN towers. I support Bundaberg Regional Council’s request for the proposed fixed wireless internet towers at Alloway and Redridge North to be more substantial. Increasing the size of these two towers not only would produce increased fixed wireless internet coverage but would allow other telecommunications infrastructure to be mounted on the same towers. This would provide an opportunity to address mobile telephone black spots along Goodwood Road, which is one of our major arterials.

Bundaberg council have been very vocal about this issue and at one point accused the coalition of excluding Bundaberg from the NBN. During its six years in government, Labor had not delivered on its NBN commitments, and yet, by their own admission, council’s ‘entire digital economic strategy was based and adopted on Labor’s promise’.

In fairness to council, they were not the only ones confused by Labor’s rollout maps. The maps misleadingly described areas as being under construction when in many cases they were, in fact, still in the stakeholder engagement phase, for example. These maps were devised by a Labor government desperate to obscure the slow progress of the rollout. Shortly after coming to government, we amended the maps to more accurately reflect the true progress of the rollout.

Separate to the strategic review, the government instructed the Department of Communications to report on quality of internet access in every single neighbourhood in Australia. The Department of Communications recently launched a website to allow businesses and households to check their broadband speeds and see where they are ranked. I must admit that this did leave me scratching my head and wondering why we would ask people without internet access to access that information online, but those without internet and anyone unable to attend the community consultations can make their views known by telephoning 1800 687626 or contacting my office. The government will use the information it gathers to ensure that underserved areas get the NBN first.

Of course, what is positive news for my electorate is the fact that Bundaberg is a point of interconnection for the NBN. This means that the region is at least one step closer to being able to connect. There is no doubt that the NBN will be of enormous benefit for health, education, business and industry. My wife is a radiographer, which is a fairly high-level area for technology. Pretty much all radiographic images are now transferred by the internet straight to a GP or another doctor, so it is essential in those areas, and they are areas that should be targeted. They are the ones that we should do first, and they are the reason that you should have a cost-benefit analysis.

We will release the new NBN rollout schedule in 2014, along with the revised NBN Co corporate plan, so we are carefully and methodically working through the mess that Labor created. I thank the people of Hinkler for their patience. The National Broadband Network that we deliver will cost internet users less and be more efficient for taxpayers.

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