Breaching the gap between the promise and the reality of the NBN
Posted May 10, 2018
As a member of the Joint Select Committee inquiring into the rollout of the NBN, Cathy has heard about the enormous frustrations experienced by her constituents and those in other parts of regional Australia related to the poor delivery of internet services.
Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (11:04): I would like to endorse the comments of my colleague from Eden-Monaro. He absolutely understands the issues that we're facing. I rise to speak about the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2017 and the Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2017. I will be supporting this legislation in the House. If passed, these bills will establish statutory infrastructure provider obligations on NBN Co to support the ongoing delivery of superfast broadband services and will provide sustainable funding for NBN Co's loss-making fixed wireless and satellite services to regional areas through the Regional Broadband Scheme, the RBS. I welcome these changes.
As a member of the Joint Standing Committee on the NBN, I, along with many of my colleagues in the House, heard firsthand of the dissatisfaction with the rollout of the NBN. The dissatisfaction absolutely seems to be highest in regional communities. The purpose of the NBN rollout committee is very clear. Our job is to assess the rollout of the NBN and ensure that this significant infrastructure project for Australia is delivered in a way that delivers the social and economic benefits it promised.
My office, like those of many members in regional areas, is acutely aware of the gap between the promise and the reality of the NBN. The experience of one of my constituents from the King Valley, a wine-producing and agricultural region 300 kilometres north of Melbourne, is a clear indication of this. I would like to read this into Hansard because I think it encapsulates the enormous frustrations that we're experiencing, but before I do I'd like to acknowledge the Minister for Regional Development, Territories and Local Government, who's in the House. It's lovely to have you here, Minister. I know that you understand this more than anybody else. Through our work on the House Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation you've just heard of the opportunities that we've got to face. I really look forward to working with you in your role to see what we can do about making sure all the regions and agriculture in particular have access to the internet that they need.
Here's a case study of a business in my electorate. They had NBN Sky Muster satellite installed in November 2016. The telecommunications office has had a case file on the complaints since mid-November 2016, with no resolution. NBN contractors have visited the property on six separate occasions to replace satellite dishes, NTD units and cables to the house. Each instance resulted in the technician reporting to NBN Co and Ericsson, the satellite provider, that there was no internet signal. NBN continued to close each case, and each time a technician went to the property a new case was opened.
Their ISP is iiNet. They have had two case managers at the TIO who have expressed their frustration in dealing with NBN Co. The assigned NBN Co case managers claim to have not had the emails sent by the TIO, even though the TIO have copies on file. The ISP seems powerless to pursue the case on behalf of the customer, even though NBN Co insists that the fault complaints have to come from the ISP.
The constituent has 4G with Optus, which they say works well. They want to keep a wireless internet arrangement at home using Optus, but they've been told that they have to be on satellite, which eliminates other options. NBN claims that they can opt to retain their legacy copper services as well as, or instead of, switching to NBN, as there are no plans to switch off the existing copper networks in these areas. That has been a hard-fought battle. But this particular constituent doesn't have fixed copper wire to their property, so it's not much help. They want the government to give the TIO more power to compel NBN to meet requirements. Despite the many fault lodgements to NBN, NBN continues to dismiss the issue.
There's not even the option to switch ISPs, because the fault continues with the satellite. There are only six providers to choose from, and my constituent believes that they've got dubious reputations. He tells me that the Sky Muster satellite ISPs do not include Telstra or Optus. The constituent tells me that he feels his hands are tied and he has been spun around like a yo-yo, with no resolution, as NBN refuses to admit that it cannot provide the capability for an internet service. This has affected the constituent's health and has been detrimental to the spouse's ability to work from home. They've agreed for me to put a ministerial into the system. They want the government to authorise on paper that he be allowed to continue to use his 4G for internet. It's just a comedy of errors—shock, horror! How could this be the case?
Sadly, it's not a one-off experience. My electoral officers constantly regale me with stories, saying, 'Guess what else has happened?' I know it's not new, but really we need to put energy into what we do about this. The strong message from my community is that the NBN is not delivering as promised. Their concerns and dissatisfaction with the rollout illustrate a lack of equity between metro and regional communities, particularly in relation to slow speeds. When people in my community try to address this, there is a lack of clarity of responsibilities between NBN Co and retail service providers. Ultimately, they turn to the office of their member of parliament for help.
As part of my role on the NBN rollout committee, we spent 12 months meeting with communities across Australia, talking to businesses and local and state governments and taking submissions. In total the committee took 191 submissions from a range of individuals and organisations, 39 of which were from my electorate of Indi. I thank those constituents for playing an active role in this process, for engaging with me and the committee and for building the evidence base so that the committee can make informed decisions and sound recommendations. I have here the list of the 39 constituents, which I was going to read to the House today, but I think that would use up some of my scarce time, and I have more important things to say. But I want to acknowledge every single one of those constituents for the time and energy they put into putting their concerns in writing. Many of them turned up to the inquiry and actually spoke to their own issues. We do get that you are busy people, and I really do appreciate the energy it takes to work with government, so to every single one of you: thank you. I look forward to continuing to advocate in parliament so that we get a better outcome.
I want to turn my mind now to the recommendations of the committee. There were 23 recommendations, but there are just a few I would really like to highlight, as I think they address the needs of rural and regional communities. I continue to call on the government to direct the NBN to establish a regional and rural reference group to support the rollout of NBN in rural and remote Australia. Minister, this is where you could really help me. When we put this recommendation up, the NBN said they didn't need a rural and remote reference group—that they knew about what was going on. Well, they might know about it, but I tell you what: their communication to the regions is not strong. I do acknowledge that they brought a roadshow bus to north-east Victoria and took it around many of the towns in my electorate, which was certainly a beginning, but there are so many issues that still need to be addressed, and communication back to my electorate and my constituents about how these are being addressed is really needed. So one of the recommendations is that we set up a reference group.
The committee has seen really clearly there needs to be greater consultation with rural and regional end users in the development of NBN user policy and NBN rollout plans. To the advisers in parliament today and to the people listening, I plead: this is really important and not an optional extra. Just saying that the telcos understand rural and regional Australia is not good enough, because we don't have evidence of that and we think it needs to be done much better. This recommendation was accepted by the majority report of the committee. It went to the government, who came back with, 'No, we're not going to do it,' for no good reason. So I reiterate that in my speech today.
I understand that, if you could set up such a reference group, the group would include consumer advocacy groups and departmental representation from the communications and regional development areas. It would be a really important step in improving the end user experience and increasing transparency. It's easily done, with huge output. I can't see why we wouldn't agree to it. When business decisions fundamentally change, the NBN experience for the end user in regional and rural communities should be referred to the reference group for consideration and analysis as to whether the decision will result in NBN not meeting its responsibilities outlined in the statement of expectations. When changes happen with NBN, you really need to consult with your regional users and say: 'How is this going to impact on you? Is this actually going to work, yes or no? What's a communication plan we could put in place to actually make it work better?'
We also called for a clearly identified complaint-handling process which would include complaint resolution processes and time frames and complaint acceleration processes, internal and external, and would meet Australian government accessibility guidelines. It should not be hard to do that. We've been hearing about the problems with the TIO. They say, 'It's not us.' Why couldn't we set up something very specifically to meet the needs for rural and regional Australia? You've heard today that we've got special and quite different needs to the city people. If we could have a process where our needs were met directly and quickly, I could say that you would be a friend of every single regional member of parliament, because it would take the huge workload off our officers and it would be really appreciated by constituents.
I know we have a helpline, but it's not targeted specifically to rural and regional, and we don't get a sense that our particular issues are being addressed in the right way. We have seen that there are significant inadequacies in resolving customer complaints—notably, a lack of direct access to the NBN and a gap in the knowledge of available avenues for complaints and dispute resolution. Whilst these issues cost wholesale and retail providers, there is a need for a single agency to provide this information to ensure the uniformity and consistency of messages and advice. If the minister and advisers would like to meet with staff in my department, I would be really happy to sit down with them and talk about the complaints that we get and how this recommendation could be worked to resolve some of the issues in a speedy way.
Before I get to the end of my talk, I would like to address my comments to agriculture and rural and regional development. In doing so, I want to acknowledge the enormous difference that the NBN has actually made to my community. My speech so far has mostly been about the problems, but, truthfully, it is a most wonderful, essential service that is going to be such a game changer for communities like mine. Where it's working—and working well—it has made a huge difference, so it's fantastic to have. I refer to an experience that the minister and I had as part of the inquiry into regional development. We went to Launceston, in Tasmania, and also to Geraldton, in Western Australia. We heard from both of these cities, which are gigabit cities; they've got infinite internet. The envy that it evoked in the rest of us, because we don't have that and we put up with such substandard—it was like dirt road problems. These two cities can advance because they've got the capacity to do it. It unleashed, I think, in all the people on our committee, an understanding of the opportunities from this technology for rural and regional Australia—and our frustration that we have to come to parliament and argue to get the changes made, as opposed to being on the front foot and being able to bring all our resources to work with the Department of Communications and the Arts, NBN Co and the TIO to actually sort out and solve the problems—because of all the benefit.
I know that the cities will benefit, but, in seeing what Launceston and Geraldton were able to do and the enormous optimism that those cities have because they've got such good internet, I could imagine that in my communities. We have so much potential to produce more. Fifty per cent of the water in the Murray-Darling Basin falls in my electorate. We could do so much. We could triple our agricultural production. We could triple our manufacturing. We're on a main transport route. We could do so much with 21st century agriculture if we could get hold of this technology. I've had the opportunity to go to Armidale, to the University of New England, to see what their smart farms are doing for agriculture. It is so exciting to see the research, but at the moment we can't bring that to our electorate. I can't bring that to my farming, manufacturing and stock and station agents, because we don't have the capacity. I'm here in parliament asking for basic services rather than being able to say, 'Let's work together to do what we can.' I'll be supporting this legislation. It is a good beginning, but we've got a long way to go. I offer the support of myself, my offices and my community to see if we can get over the hump and deliver what we know the potential of this technology is.