Local, Independant and Effective

Improved telecommunications on the way for Indi

Posted March 01, 2016



CATHY MCGOWAN ( Indi ) ( 15:23 ): It gives me great pleasure to speak to the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Access Regime and NBN Companies) Bill 2015. I take this opportunity to report to the people of Indi some of the amazing achievements that have taken place over the last two years, to talk about the importance of a national approach to policy around telecommunications in rural and regional Australia and to talk about the future that is awaiting our young people in rural and regional Australia when we have the standard of telecommunications that we need.

As has been said in this parliament recently, telecommunications infrastructure is going to do away with the tyranny of distance that so many of us have experienced for so long. It is a story that began for me in my little dairy farm in the Indigo Valley where my mother managed the local telephone exchange, 33D, and the whole the community was linked by putting a little plug in the phone. Moving on to the 1990s, we first got access to the internet and became connected to the world wide web. And in 2013 I ran as an Independent with an absolute commitment to lobby, to work and to do everything in my power to make sure that the communities of Indi got the benefit of the NBN and mobile phone coverage.

I am delighted to report to the House today that that hard work, that whole-of-community approach, is really delivering dividends. We have a fixed line service from the NBN for over 52,000 premises and a fixed wireless service for over 14,000 premises—and, once the satellite is up and running, close to 4,000 premises will have access to it. I am absolutely delighted to say that today in Yackandandah the NBN is being turned on, in Barnawartha North it is up and running and in North Wangaratta and all the communities the NBN is working. To the people in Taggerty, it is fantastic. In Rennies Hill, Thornton South and to all those around 'The Paps', it is fantastic to be able to stand in this parliament and say that the NBN has arrived to our community. In Benalla, it is absolutely working and in Wangaratta and Wodonga—my major centre—the rollout is well and truly underway.

The great success of the NBN coming to our communities is linked to the issues we still have with mobile phone coverage, but I am pleased to say that we have made enormous headway there. Over 300 black spots were identified in 2014. Close to 200 of those have been addressed through the mobile phone black spot rollout program, one with 30 base stations. This was a huge achievement for the people of Indi. We received over one-third of allocated base stations right across Australia—only Durack and O'Connor, in Western Australia, did better. For all the competitive tendering, Indi came in third, which is a fantastic achievement for our community. Well done to everybody involved. We had a lot of success in getting the whole community to work together—businesses, local government, the community, the Victorian government and the authorities. We formed the Indi Telecommunications Action Group. We mapped where the black spots were. We worked with local government to get in-kind contributions. We worked with the telcos to talk about what needs to be done. We worked with individuals who had had accidents and no mobile coverage. We really raised our voice, and the result is there for all to see. We have done extraordinarily well, so thank you everybody for your hard work. I am now looking forward to round 2. We can make a difference for the remaining black spots, particularly in the high priority areas of the Mitta Valley, to the King Valley, to down around Kevington, Carboor and the Indigo Valley, where we have really poor service and we know the need.

When we have this conversation about telecommunications there is confusion between NBN broadband and mobile phone. What happens in my communities is that many, many people rely on mobile phones to get their broadband—through access to mobile phone towers. We put our little dongles in the system and we can then use the mobile phone tower to come to our computers to give us broadband. But it is a totally unsatisfactory system. It is expensive, it is unreliable, the data allowance gets used up really quickly and the capacity in the morning and in the night when it is busy makes it very, very hard to get the signal. When you have a lot of people come into the area, like we do with our festivals, the whole service gets clogged up and just does not work. So we are looking forward to the full rollout of the NBN and our ability to access broadband and, at the same time, the absolute need to get the mobile phones working much better.

If I could talk a little bit about mobile phones, I want to claim some great wins here for the people of Allans Flat. For the NBN, you got your petition going and we really did good work. We got the mobile phone tower at Mount Dorothy down near Yea. It was fantastic work by the community and by Telstra. Up at Dartmouth, with our landlines, what an achievement it was to have that public meeting, to get The Border Mail to cover the story, to get the telcos there and to actually get a commitment to fix those landlines that disappeared every time it rained. The people of upper Howqua Dale got their fixed lines fixed. For the people of Chiltern and the Indigo Valley, I know we are not totally there yet, but there was a huge impact after the fires. We got Telstra in and showed them how important those services were and what we needed to do. The communities around Lurg, Molyullah and Tatong have brought petitions to me. I have brought them to this place. We have been able to lobby and we have been able to get the commitment for better service.

While I have been in this job, we have also taken up the issue of VAST—the TV that comes out of Central Australia—and how inadequate it is for communities that are so close to highways and mainstream Melbourne not to get local TV. That is still on the agenda. We have made a lot of progress but we still have a way to go. While we are not there yet, I am absolutely optimistic that over the next three years, wherever you are in the electorate, you will be able to get the mobile phone coverage and the internet coverage you need.

I want to talk briefly about what this means, and I would like to bring to the attention of the House two letters I have received, from Anika and from her sister, Mia. Anika is 10 years old and she writes: 'I live 10 minutes away from Wodonga and recently my family and I have got access to NBN. Before we had NBN we were living on 15 GBs a month, and by day 2 of that month we had no GBs left. There were times when I was unable to complete my homework due to the fact that we had no GBs left. But since we've got NBN I have never had to stay in at lunchtime to finish homework, and I now have access to YouTube and heaps of other stuff that I was not able to access before we had NBN. Having NBN has helped me in my schoolwork. I can now do research. I can study things on the internet. I can do Mathletics and other programs that help me study and learn new things. So, thank you to Malcolm Turnbull and all the people that have supported NBN coming to the country.'

And I say thank you, Anika, and thank you, Mia, for your lovely letters. And I think that just absolutely encapsulates, from a 10-year-old—these digital natives—what an enormous difference it is going to make to their ability to live, work, run businesses, do the things that they need to do in rural Australia. However, we are not done yet. There is still a long way to go. And perhaps I can just talk a little bit about some of the things that we need to do. We need to make sure that everybody in Australia has access to broadband, that no consumers are worse off, that we have robust consumer protection and that we have a competitive and fair market. That is one of the areas that I particularly want to talk about today: the need in the future to ensure that in rural and regional Australia we have competition. Without competition we are never going to get the diversity of the products that we actually need to deliver what we want to do in our communities.

In my community we have Telstra—it is great to have you, Telstra—but we do not have access to Optus or Vodafone; we do not have the competition we need. And it is really, really important that we get the competition and access to the diversity of products right across Australia that give us the choice around our telecommunications provider and the types of products we need. One of the really important things we need to have in the future is to just be able to assume that wherever you are in rural and regional Australia you can actually get access to mobile phone coverage. In this regard I would like to talk about the regional telecommunications independent review that was tabled in the parliament before Christmas and the government response that was recently tabled. I have to say how really disappointed I have been by the government's response to this independent review. There is enormous opportunity for the government to actually look at universal service obligations that currently apply to landlines and say, 'Yep, landline was a great technology in the last century; the technology of the future is broadband and mobile phones, and we actually need to have universal service obligations apply to that.' This review had some really excellent recommendations about a consumer communications fund, which would enable this to be funded. The government has said it is going to go off to the Productivity Commission to get a report on it, but I am really saying to the government, 'Let's just grasp this; let's do what we need to do and make sure that wherever you are in Australia you can use your mobile phone.'

The other thing I would briefly like to talk about in the time I have left is what the opportunities will be in the future. I am on the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Agriculture, and we are currently doing an inquiry into agricultural innovation. We have had over 100 submissions come in, and this afternoon we are having hearings. Almost without exception, every single submission has said that the major barrier to the uptake of innovation in agriculture is telecommunications—poor mobile phone coverage, poor access to broadband—and that what we actually need, assuming we are going to get that, are the products. It is about getting the telcos to come up with the products that enable us to do real-time research, connecting with our farms, with our research organisations, connecting with our international markets so that we have really close collaboration there.

The opportunities are enormous for us with telecommunications, and I am really looking forward to being part of my community, working with agriculture and working with industry as we develop the products that are going to take our agricultural business into the future. One of my constituents told me last week that telecommunications—mobile phones and particularly NBN—is a bit like how electricity was when it first came to our country areas. In my valley it came in 1958. When the lights were turned on, everyone thought that was an amazing thing: we had electricity online, and we got light. We had no idea that electricity would power computers, Thermomixes, sewing machines, washing machines and all the other amazing implements we now have because of electricity. This farmer said to me, 'It's going to be like that with broadband; the things we're going to be able to use broadband for have not even been imagined into existence yet.'

So, one of the things that I am really calling on the government to do in its agricultural and research and development agenda is to put creative and innovative use of digital technology way up the top of our research so that in our marketing and in our research in particular, as we develop the use of sensors, we can get in real time that step-up of research that we will need in the future. In bringing my comments to a close I would just like to acknowledge the work of both the government and the opposition for the terrific job they have done, really and truly, despite the politics, to get NBN, to get mobile phone coverage out into the country. I look forward to a whole-of-government approach under the next parliament as we fast-track and get the step-up we need so that particularly the agricultural businesses can do what they need to do.

I want to acknowledge the work of local councils particularly, for your co-contribution. I know sometimes it is hard fought, but it has made a huge difference to the ability to get those mobile phone towers where we need them in the rural areas. So, thank you very much. I absolutely acknowledge the work of the CEOs, the mayors and the councillors, and the ratepayers, in putting that money onto the table so that we can get the mobile phone coverage we need. I also want to say thankyou to the many, many communities and individuals in Indi. You have really come to the task. You have your community petitions organised, and the letters. You have come to parliament and you have really helped me identify where the black spots were both for mobile phones and for broadband and really been such a partner with me in bringing these issues to parliament. And I absolutely make my commitment that when I am re-elected and am back here as the federal member for Indi for my second term, mobile phone coverage and NBN coverage is way up there at the fore, so that by the time my nieces and my friends and Anika—who wrote to me, who is now 10—is 15 and ready to go into her higher years of school, every single student in Indi will have access to very fast broadband to do all the study they need from home as well as school.

So, I say to the people of Indi, thank you for the trust you have placed in me. This was a major election commitment of mine, to actually improve mobile phone coverage and NBN. I am very happy to report very successfully on the work we have done so far and am looking forward to coming back and finishing the job after the election.

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