The digital divide is widening in the bush

May 12, 2020

SPEECH - Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2019 & Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2019

Reliable affordable telecommunications are not a luxury, or something that should just be afforded to people living in major population centres.

The response to COVID19 has demonstrated like nothing else our reliance on effective telecommunications networks and infrastructure.

People have effectively worked from home and I expect many will continue to do so for some time.

This will be part of our new normal as we adjust to a post-Covid world.

To ensure all Australians are able to do, this we must overcome the digital divide between the cities and the bush.

I note with concern there is no guarantee this legislation will do that.

I have these concerns because regional NBN investment was reduced by $200 million in the 2020 NBN Corporate Plan over the period from 2018–2022, despite the Government's broadband tax being proposed in the name of regional funding.

NBN Co sought to conceal this regional funding reduction, with the company subsequently offering contradictory explanations about what had occurred and why it occurred.

There is seemingly no mechanism that requires the surplus revenue from the Government's $800 million annual broadband tax to be spent on regional networks.

In practice, there remain legitimate concerns that, once the tax revenues flow into NBN Co, the company management can effectively direct surplus tax revenue towards anything they wish once it is washed through an offset account, regardless of whether the expenditure relates to a regional outcome or not.

The Government is introducing a broadband tax in the name of regional funding – while cutting regional NBN investment at the same time.

A new tax that will not fix the problem this Government created.

Remember the Liberal Party voted against universal broadband access in Australia. They voted against broadband in the regions.

The Liberals stood by and did nothing as NBNCo overloaded its fixed wireless towers in regional areas, leading to slow speeds and congestion.

This poor decision is costing more in the long-run. And it’s costing consumers in the regions most of all.

For example, people who live in Alice Springs rural area, less than 10km from the CBD, have to rely on satellite services for their digital access.

These are people who run businesses, students who study, that cannot access the same levels of service as other residents of Alice Springs.

And ironically a new subdivision in the same area of town gets fibre to the premises to all homes.

Yet people living across the road don’t. Go figure

And the digital divide is widening in the bush.

WiFi use is increasing in remote communities, often exceeding data allowances, but the lack of access to good basic digital infrastructure in the bush continues to be a roadblock to development.

Community-led innovative and creative projects and ideas are being developed and utilised by First Nations organisations, media and creatives.

Community- based content creation projects are strengthening language, culture and providing training and work opportunities.

Programs that provide digital mentors to improve skills and awareness, such as Indigimob, are having really, really positive outcomes.

Improved internet can lead to better opportunities for enterprise development and access to more affordable products and services.

Better telecommunications services out bush can lead to jobs and economic development.

Employment opportunities could open up in so many sectors with improved access. Telehealth – I’ve heard it spoken about here in the Senate, well let me tell you we desperately need better services and access to that – and medicine, education, training, essential services, infrastructure support and media out in our regional and remote areas.

First Nations Media Australia has long advocated for the urgent need to upgrade telecommunications services and infrastructure.

First Nations media organisations are an essential service, underlined by the vital role they have been playing in crafting and broadcasting relevant and appropriate messages and content to their audiences during the response to COVID19.

We have used First Nations media in the over 100 Aboriginal languages – to turn the messages of the COVID-19 health messages – to get that out there.

This is job creation. This is essential communication.

I have no doubt our First Nations media organisations across the country have played a major role in keeping our communities healthy and safe.

I would like to extend to them my thanks for their hard work, often not remunerated, during this very challenging time across our country.

If you haven’t seen or heard some of the outstanding work First Nations media workers have recently been doing, jump online and take look.

There’s health related messages in a wealth of languages, songs urging mob to what their hands in the languages. We had about 18 languages put together very quickly in a short space of time just about the washing og hands, animations and short skits. And the range of creativity and innovation is amazing – and in this instance lifesaving.

But regional and remote First Nations broadcasters and media producers are being hampered by lack of affordable and appropriate broadband.

First Nations broadcasters need access to adequate and reliable broadband.

Without it the sector will not be able to realise its full potential in the new media landscapes.

Digital technologies provide the opportunity for regional and remote broadcasters and media producers to significantly enhance their operations, creating jobs and supporting economic opportunity in regions where both are often limited.

Contemporary broadcasting studio and transmission equipment is Internet compatible but broadband speeds in most regional and remote communities are currently frustratingly slow preventing access to even basic online services let alone allowing for sharing of large media files.

Some of the main strengths of our First Nations media organisations is that they are connected and that they are local.

We need to ensure they keep this connectivity.

Labor is committed to a sustainable funding arrangement to support and improve NBN services in regional Australia.

There is no substitute for a first-class fibre NBN with sound long-term economics to support a sustainable funding mechanism.

 

Policy makers need to achieve a connected and inclusive digital future for remote regions.

This includes improving issues of affordability, digital literacy and cyber-safety, as well as overcoming the infrastructure deficit.

What is evident is the need for better mobile coverage and internet access.

Labor considers NBN should be able to compete on a level playing field.

NBN has a unique obligation to service parts of the country that are unprofitable to serve.

If it competes on an uneven playing field it makes that task harder.

We just need to be clear about what that playing field is.

The amount of cross subsidy available is to some extent dependent on how much revenue NBN generates in the fixed-line footprint.

When you switch from fibre which can guarantee minimum speeds, to copper which can’t, you make that task more challenging – particularly over the medium to long-term.

It was disappointing that prior to the 2013 election the Liberals encouraged other companies to deploy networks and compete directly against the NBN, with full knowledge this would undercut the NBN business model.

They set out to make it incredibly difficult for the NBN, and now want to introduce a tax to protect themselves against what they instigated.

Universal broadband in Australia is an achievement of the Labor Party and the will of the Australian people.

As we have done for over a decade, we will continue to put consumers and the regions front and centre of our policymaking.