NBN Committee Report: rural and regional areas

Published on Mon 26 November 2018 3:55pm

The potential and promise of high-quality broadband is to reduce the gap that exists as a result of physical distance. That’s the technological magic of broadband, really—that a person could be able to have an e-health consultation in Port Hedland or in Marble Bar just as they might have one in South Fremantle or Applecross.

Mr Wilson (3:55pm) — by leave — I’m glad also to make some comments on the report of the Joint Standing Committee on the NBN, a report focused, as the chair has described, on the rollout of the NBN in rural and regional areas. It followed from the work that the committee did on that topic in our inquiry and first report, tabled in October last year. It was clear from that report that this broad question of fair and proper, and effective and sustainable, access to broadband in rural and regional areas of Australia really did require further examination.

Before I go to that, I will just note that some of the committee’s work and recommendations from the first report on this topic did influence shifts by the government—most notably in the doubling of data limits from the Sky Muster service. That was one of the serious shortcomings we heard about in that first inquiry. But, sadly, a number of the sensible recommendations were ignored, and some of those things were revisited by this most recent inquiry. For example, the committee previously recommended that the Australian government set a benchmark for reasonable data allowance on the Sky Muster plans by reference to average data use across the fixed line network. That goes squarely to this question of how Australians in rural and regional communities should be able to expect that their needs are assessed and then met by reference to what people in cities are able to enjoy when it comes to broadband, and yet that recommendation was not accepted or followed by the government.

Equally, the committee recommended that the Australian government require the NBN to identify and disclose all areas that had been designated to be served by satellite connection that were previously set to receive the NBN by fibre to the node or fixed wireless. Fibre to the node and fixed wireless are higher quality technologies in terms of the service, and the committee thought it was really just a matter of basic transparency and good process for all of us, but particularly for Australians in rural and regional communities, to know when they had initially been set to receive those better-quality technologies—fibre to the node or fixed wireless—but were subsequently moved onto satellite. Again, the government didn’t support that recommendation, which I think was a missed opportunity.

Finally, in the 2017 report the committee recommended that the Australian government ask NBN to establish a rural and regional reference group to enable NBN to consult on Sky Muster services and changes to policies and rollout. Again, the government didn’t support those recommendations.

It really is important that we reflect on why broadband is so important outside our cities. On one level, it’s really quite simple: it’s important outside our cities for the same reason it’s important inside our cities. Broadband is an essential kind of infrastructure. It is the best example of a genuinely 21st century infrastructure, and it’s something that Australians, right across this continent, ought to be able to enjoy. It is basic infrastructure; it is critical to basic services and to channels of communication. If we think about the kinds of things that infrastructure supports, it goes right across all important areas of Australian life.

There’s often too much of a focus, I would say, on the entertainment uses of broadband, whether that’s video streaming, internet searching, email and so on. When you think that it is actually critical to the delivery of banking services, interaction with all forms of government support, small business services, education and e-health, it’s clear that broadband is not an optional extra. It’s not an added extra. It’s essential. The potential and promise of high-quality broadband is to reduce the gap that exists as a result of physical distance. That’s the technological magic of broadband, really—that a person could be able to have an e-health consultation in Port Hedland or in Marble Bar just as they might have one in South Fremantle or Applecross. Yet, on the whole, people in businesses in rural and regional Australia get slower speeds, they get less data, they experience less reliability and they face higher costs. And so, as we watch the rollout of the NBN, particularly in rural and regional Australia, we confront the very real risk that, rather than decreasing the existing inequality and the tyranny of distance, it will, in fact, increase it.

The committee, in our inquiry, heard from representatives from all corners of the continent about the importance of the NBN. The WA government described the way that:

Western Australian farmers are embracing technology advances to improve efficiencies. However, they are finding it increasingly difficult to contend in a global marketplace without connectivity comparable to that of their international competitors.

The New South Wales Farmers’ Association emphasised that access to a reliable and competitive broadband network is essential for the Australian economy and society and said:

This is especially the case in regional, rural and remote Australia where an access will be essential to overcome the tyranny of distance and provide unparalleled opportunities. Such steps are vital to drive the projected growth of the agriculture sector to $100 billion by 2030.

Significantly, the government in Queensland made the point that:

The 2017 Australian Digital Inclusion Index report ranks Queensland fifth for access across all states and territories and fifth for affordability, with our most digitally excluded Queenslanders being elderly people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, rural and low-income people and people with a disability.

So that gives you a sense of how important broadband is to rural and regional communities.

We know through the evidence that was presented to this committee that there are some serious systemic issues. One of them is the growing congestion in fixed wireless service areas. That has occurred, at least partly, because people have been pushed off line broadband—fibre to the node, which I previously described—and pushed onto satellite and fixed wireless. That’s why the committee has made two recommendations to government. Recommendation 13, again, goes to the provision of mapping for satellite services so that communities can understand the better options in relation to moving onto fixed wireless, if there’s an adequate signal. Recommendation 14 recommends that:

… nbn undertakes an assessment of those premises mapped for satellite that are adjacent to fixed wireless services and reports on how many premises allocated to satellite are capable of receiving a fixed wireless service …

I think those would both be meaningful improvements. In relation to the question of sustainability of funding, the committee recommends that the government review the existing cross-subsidy arrangements.

In conclusion, I acknowledge the support we had from the secretariat and the input of all committee members. I particularly signal my colleague the member for Lyons, who was the deputy chair for a lot of this committee’s work. He is an unstinting representative of his community. He represents a regional part of Tasmania. I thank him for his work. I obviously acknowledge the leadership of the chair and the input of all committee members.

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