Local, Independant and Effective

Indi telecommunications - we can do better

Posted November 26, 2014


CATHY McGOWAN (Indi) (19:02):  I acknowledge the member for Ryan and thank her for that good expose of the background behind the legislation. Tonight I would like to speak to the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Deregulation) Bill 2014 and related bill and pick up two particular features of it. The most important one from my perspective is the universal service obligation. The bill makes some changes to existing processes for potentially lifting USO (Universal Service Obligation) regulations in the future and it is to this provision that I want to address my remarks tonight.

Telecommunications is problematic in regional Australia, as we have heard from the member for Bendigo. It is a topic of major interest to most residents, businesses and particularly younger people who rely on digital communication via their mobile phones. It is that group of young people with whom I have much empathy.

In my speech tonight I would like to discuss the importance of the USO, outline some of the issues facing telecommunications infrastructure nationally, particularly in my electorate of Indi, and call for a national discussion about how telecommunications can better serve residents and businesses in the future, by doing four things: by expanding the existing Black Spot Program; by actively supporting co-location of mobile and broadband facilities; by proactively working with local governments, communities, businesses and telcos so that they can work cooperatively to solve problems, particularly black spots at the local level; and by government allowing the use of mobile phones, as well as landlines and payphones, to satisfy USO obligations.

I turn to the universal service obligation. This obligation is incorporated into the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999. It is designed to ensure that all people in Australia, no matter where they live or conduct business, have reasonable access on an equitable basis to standard telephone services and payphones, as well as prescribed carriage services. However, currently, no prescribed services exist.

The minister has determined, in his wisdom, that Telstra is the primary universal service provider for the whole of Australia. This reference is from the Telstra USO policy statement, 2005.

The universal service regime also includes the digital data service obligation, which is the obligation to ensure that either:

(i) general digital data services; or

(ii) special digital data services;

are reasonably accessible to all people in Australia on an equitable basis, no matter where they live or conduct business.

Telstra is a carrier declared by the Government to fulfil the digital data service obligation throughout Australia.

The USO does not extend to additional services such as mobile phones and broadband. The government considers that there is already a competitive market for such services, but that is not the case in regional Australia.

The USO policy is critically important to people who live in regional Australia. It is an expression of our national commitment to fairness and equity. The USO is our attempt as a nation to address the issue of accessibility, to overcome the tyranny of distance and resulting higher costs to service delivery in regional areas.

I encourage the government, if it is to undertake any changes to the USO, to do so with care, to bring the community with them and to ensure that the community understands the implications and benefits of proposed changes.

I would now like to turn my mind to the role of Telstra in regional Australia and here I would like to put on the record that I own shares in Telstra and am a significant customer. I have a deep and abiding relationship with the service it provides me; the linesmen who sort out my regular problems; the technicians who do the work; and the backroom office people who enable me to live, work and share a community life from my farm in north-east Victoria.

 However, the aspect of Telstra that I would like to see changed is its virtual monopoly on telecommunications in regional Australia. I do not think that this works to our advantage.

I would like to see greater competition and I would love to see other telcos providing competitive services in regional Australia, particularly through our USO.

When I think of Telstra I think of my mobile phone coverage. At this stage I would like actually to acknowledge and congratulate the government and the Department of Communications on the excellent work that they are doing to address black spots, especially in areas of potential emergency, where clearly it is uneconomic for the telcos—Telstra in our case—to locate towers. The consultation that has taken place with the community, the mapping of the black spots and the process for setting priorities are working really well from my perspective. The groundwork has been done. However, it is not enough; $100 million is not nearly enough money to cover the problem. My colleagues from all parts of regional Australia would agree that this is a great program; there is just not enough money. We need to enlarge it. We need to expand it.

The Department of Communications database has in excess of 6,000 reports of mobile phone black spots, and in my electorate of Indi 275 reports. With the Mobile Black Spot Program we estimate we will get three towers to help us meet this need. While I am very grateful for those three towers, they are clearly not enough to meet our need or the need right across Australia. In my electorate of Indi, local government has joined forces with business, the Country Fire Authority and others to look at how we can leverage this program to gain efficiencies, to co-locate services, to have community buy-in and to squeeze every bit of extra coverage that we can gain. Now that the processes are in place the government, and Australia, is in an ideal position to work closely with the department to address the next set of priorities. I will really look forward to working with my coalition colleagues, particularly the members of the National Party, to get the extra funding in next year's budget.

One of the problems we have in my community is how to maximise the mobile phone coverage we get through leveraging the potential of broadband, and particularly the NBN, through co-location technology. From our perspective, co-location of mobile phone coverage and broadband is essential for us to maximise delivery. However, getting competing telcos to sit down and discuss how best to maximise the opportunity offered by NBN is proving problematic. How do we get all the players to work together? Where are the carrots? How do we get even more competition in regions? If our experience in Indi is anything to go by, co-location is extremely problematic. It requires a level of knowledge by local government, who are responsible for the managing permits. It requires a willingness by telcos to work together. It requires an ability to cover the costs of backhaul from the fixed wireless towers to the networks. And in the longer term it requires an educated community able to anticipate what new technologies will bring to their communities and their businesses and to be active players in the design and delivery of these services.

Within my electorate of Indi we have been having some very specific problems that I would like to have documented in tonight's debate. Last weekend in the King Valley, as we have on many weekends in Indi, we had a festival, La Dolce Vita Wine and Food Festival. It is a festival in celebration of the Italian community in north-eastern Victoria. We had many, many visitors from the major cities. It was a very, very hot weekend. What happened, as regularly happens, was that our mobile phone service got sick. It did not quite die; it just lost capacity to deliver. The phone service did not work. The EFTPOS machines did not work. The booking systems for accommodation did not work. The real worry for the community—we can manage, I suppose, with the business fallout—was the bushfire danger. It was extraordinarily hot and a fire could easily have broken out, and our communication systems just weren't there.

These brownouts are common in Indi where we have many festivities and large numbers of tourists. It is not just the Winery Walkabout or the Celtic Festival, it happens during the snow season as well. Next weekend we have the Great Victorian Bike Ride: 4,000 cyclists all using their mobile phones will be travelling right throughout north-eastern Victoria. We fear a similar failure of our system. The political fallout is what really counts. As the member for Bendigo said earlier, the system is just not working.

For visitors from Melbourne, Sydney and other places who come to enjoy the hospitality of Indi there is an additional problem: the lack of competition. It is particularly bad for local businesses. Many visitors have Vodafone or Optus plans, but in Indi and also, I know, in many other areas of rural Australia, we do not have Vodafone or Optus coverage. We have Telstra. There is nothing more frustrating for visitors from Melbourne or Sydney—or Brisbane or Adelaide for that matter—coming to our area and discovering that their Vodafone or Optus phone do not work. There is limited coverage on the snow fields, wineries, lakes, picnic spots and camping areas. It is just not good enough. Vodafone and Optus should be as readily available as Telstra.

There are four things that I think we could do to ameliorate this problem. In the first instance, we need a general, open, national discussion about telecommunications infrastructure in regional Australia and how it can be designed in partnership with community to deliver for us for a sustainable future. We need community buy-in. There are four things I would like to talk to. We need to expand the black spots program. It is a good program; in fact, it is a great program. It was an election commitment that the government is delivering on. The establishment work has been done, priorities have been listed and partnerships built. I really encourage the government and my colleagues opposite to maximise the work done in this establishment phase and to consider expanding it to pick up the next level of priorities that we have already identified—$1 billion would be a great start.

My second suggestion for activity in this area is for the minister and the Department of Communications actively to support and encourage telcos to co-locate mobile and broadband facilities. This is desperately needed and, from the government perspective, is a low cost high impact strategy. The NBN Co. rollout is underway. Fixed wireless towers are being built in my electorate. Where mobile towers already exist there is greater possibility to co-locate NBN technology.

I encourage the government to proactively encourage the telcos to work together—give them some carrots.

The third area in which I would like to encourage much greater proactive work is between the Department of Communications, local governments, community, business and telcos on solving black spots. This is a role the department could undertake relatively easily. I would like to see a public education, public engagement program where the communities and local government work together to assist in fast-tracking applications and to help people better understand the obligations that must be met. As we have heard tonight, the telco regulation area is very complex.

In my community—and I know this is the case in other communities—people are very keen to help. In many instances, they want these services more than we do. But it is a complex area and it is hard to know where to get into the system. There is a lot of misunderstanding, so intervention, improved understanding and building relationships at the community level would have a big impact. It is the sort of job that the Department of Communications could undertake with great ease. I say again that it would be high impact and low cost.

My final suggestion, directly relevant to this debate, is that the government should allow the use of mobile phones, as well as landlines and payphones, to satisfy the USO obligations. Universal service obligations could easily be delivered by mobile phones, and it does not necessarily have to be Telstra that does all the heavy lifting. As the minister goes into negotiation with Telstra on its next range of agreements, could he please consider the option of mobile phone coverage, particularly for young people who do not use landlines but who need their mobile phones wherever they go in Australia to be covered by the USO? Vodafone and Optus could readily and, I think, happily compete with Telstra on the ability to meet that USO. In closing, I think we can do better with telecommunications in rural Australia. This legislation is a beginning, but we have a long way to go.

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