COMMITTEES Infrastructure and Communications Committee Report

Mr HUSIC (Chifley—Government Whip) (12:36): I am very pleased to be able to speak on this report: Broadening the debate—inquiry into the role and potential of the National Broadband Network. The report was prepared following an inquiry held by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications, chaired by the member for Cunningham and helped enormously by an enthusiastic, very sharp secretariat. I thank them for their terrific assistance through the inquiry and I note the presence in the chamber of my colleague the member for Throsby, whom I enjoyed working with on this inquiry, because we believe very passionately in the role of this network in transforming the country's economic and social future. Members, regardless of their politics, largely worked cooperatively on this inquiry—though I have to say I was surprised that a minority report was prepared, but I will talk more about that later.

As someone with a deep interest in the positive impact that technology can have on improving our society, I was an enthusiastic supporter of this inquiry. Because the demand for improved internet access is not disputed, albeit except by elements of a politically motivated and policy challenged opposition, there is a need to help harness and coordinate the demand and provide an improved platform for that demand for internet services. Building the NBN is one step, but levering off that platform to improve economic, health, education and government service delivery is the next important challenge, which is why this report is particularly timely.

The report covers two crucial areas. In the first part it outlines the impact of the NBN on delivering government services, achieving health outcomes, improving the delivery of education and, importantly, the impact it will have on regional economic outcomes and employment opportunities. The report then charts out the work needed to optimise the capacity and technological requirements of the network to deliver the outcomes.

Close to 20 separate recommendations were drawn up as a result of the inquiry hearings and the submissions received. From my perspective, some of the key recommendations included, firstly, the need for government to keep implementing broadband enabled technologies into its own services and operations to help improve the way it works and help boost NBN uptake; secondly, the development of a comprehensive engagement strategy incorporating a range of approaches to promote the uptake of broadband and digital technologies during the rollout; and, thirdly, strong support for increased levels of research and innovation in the private sector, recognising the NBN's crucial importance in driving innovation within our nation.

There were two other recommendations I was particularly supportive of: finding ways to assist those who are jammed within the digital divide by improving their access to high-speed internet facilities, and promoting the development of relevant skills. I have previously spoken in the House and in this place about the great work being done by some community groups, for example, in helping people 45 years and older to learn about how to use computers and navigate their way through the net and various software programs that we take for granted in this place. The exceptionally useful program rolled out by this government, the Broadband for Seniors kiosks, is a great idea. We need to keep building on this model—and this is one of the recommendations put forward by this report. Another important recommendation that stood out to me was recommendation No. 7, which recognised the important roles of public libraries and community centres and which acknowledged that, with some work by government, we can transform these centres as public access points, enabling people to not only take their first steps onto the internet but also benefit from the improvements that come from using the net to improve government service delivery. Developing public access points will, hopefully, provide people with an opportunity to vault over those barriers. It will, potentially, open up people's eyes to a new path in their life, holding out the prospect that they may be able to take up a role in the IT sector through the use of IT and the NBN, develop a new service or start a business of their own. These are opportunities that open up with access to high-speed internet.

It is important to note that, despite the fact that the cost of technology has started to come down, getting access to IT hardware and software is still a barrier to engaging with technology. On this point of barriers to access, I have been very critical about the cost of IT hardware and software in this country. It is enormously relevant to this issue, where we are poised to have a new broadband network rolled out across the country. I have been vocal about the price differentials that exist for Australian consumers of hardware and software and about how they have been seriously disadvantaged, compared to consumers in the US and UK, who get access to these products sometimes at 80 per cent less cost. The value of the net to Australia was recently spelt out by a phenomenally useful report entitled The connected continent, prepared by Deloitte Access Economics for Google. I was stunned to see that the opposition communications spokesperson, the member for Wentworth, deride the findings of this report. That is no surprise. The coalition criticise climate change scientists, they hector economists and now, apparently, Google is also a target for championing the internet by a political party that is more interested in transforming themselves into policy Neanderthals. But this report spelt out the economic value of the internet to the economy and it argued that the direct economic value of the internet to the Australian economy is currently worth approximately $50 billion, or 3.6 per cent of GDP.

As much as there is a focus on two-speed economies that exist in this country, we need to celebrate and champion the value of the IT sector to this nation and our future. It provides jobs to almost 200,000 Australians—for instance, through software firms, internet service providers and companies providing e-commerce and online advertising services. To put that into context, the generation of 190,000 jobs as a result of occupations directly related to the internet compares pretty favourably to the mining sector, which, by May this year, employed 217,000 people.

The wider benefits of the internet are especially important. The Deloitte report argues that approximately $27 billion is generated in productivity increases alone to business and government in the form of improvements in the way they work and provide services.

I was also interested to read that Deloitte put a dollar value on the benefits of the internet to households, arguing that, for example, households get about $53 billion in benefits in the form of added convenience through things such as online banking, bill paying and accessing goods and services. Households and consumers are moving to seize on these benefits. For example, just look at how the Woolworths app shot up to be the most popular app on Apple's app store on the first day of its release.

The reason I mention that is that I feel strongly that IT pricing is an anchor on business and households, holding back export focused businesses, especially small businesses, that are competing with counterparts in other countries that are getting access to software and hardware at prices that are seriously lower than those charged here. Some small businesses have contacted me fuming that some software that is essential to them may cost them $10,000 more than what it costs their competitors in the US.

I am happy to say that I have had very productive discussions with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer, the member for Lindsay, and his advisers about this issue. If we are to maximise the benefits of the NBN, as outlined in this report, and if we are to ensure our businesses are competitive on the world stage and that households are not needlessly burdened by artificially high costs, then we do need to ask major firms, such as Microsoft, Apple, Lenovo or Adobe why they charge Australian consumers and businesses in a way that they would never dream of doing in their home markets.

Mr Stephen Jones: Good question.

Mr HUSIC: It is a big issue, Member for Throsby. Thank you for your support. I am looking forward to seeing further progress on this matter in the coming weeks. I wanted to take the time to reflect on another development that stems from the improved access to broadband. As much as the emergence of the digital economy is opening up commercial and employment opportunities, other industries will confront issues as a result of access to broadband. The committee heard evidence that flagged the impact on Australia's postal sector. The spread of the internet off a platform with access to super-fast broadband is impacting on postal operations worldwide. Businesses, especially those who have traditionally been large users of postal services, are actively replacing physical forms of communication with electronic ones. The subsequent contraction in letter volumes is the single biggest challenge confronting the business model of traditional postal operations, forcing many to restructure.

Conversely, as much as the internet is leading to fewer letters, it is also leading to a growth in parcel delivery off the back of consumer purchases via the net. In Australia, our postal service experienced volume growth for most of the last decade until 2008, when the GFC fully hit. Over the last two years, the trends that have been evident for some time in overseas markets have emerged here, with mail volumes falling in both 2009 and 2010. Domestic letter volumes fell by 4.1 per cent and 4.2 per cent, respectively, over those periods and revenues grew only slightly. These factors have led to postal operators exploring new ways of diversifying their operations. For example, in the UK the government and the postal service are working to reposition that service over four years via modernisation of the network. However, while the UK has a large population and a smaller land mass than Australia, Australia's population growth is spread over a very large area. Considering the demand for postal services in regional Australia, along with the employment it requires, this will be an issue for policymakers here.

While Australia Post has embarked on organisational restructuring, committing $20 million over three years to prepare its 40,000 employees, there is a need to retrain the workforce and to help them deal with the industry transformation that will be occurring. I believe strongly that we do need greater structural assistance for Australia Post to help it to deal with the issues it faces.

Finally, I want to reflect on the minority report that bookends this report—minority by logic, evidence and support. While there were three opposition MPs on the committee, it appears that one member—the member for Bradfield—has really driven this minority report. You only need to see the number of times he has inserted himself into Hansard in the report to get a sense of that. Some of the arguments were pleading for evidence or reality to support them. We had the same tired arguments about cost-benefit analysis. I mentioned that the Deloitte report says $50 billion of economic worth is generated by the internet in this country, but that was then derided by the opposition because it did not fit a convenient argument that they are peddling. They ran the same old argument that no-one supports fibre to the premises, even though the ACCC reckons that this is the best competitive model and it provides greater benefit than fibre to the node. They also had some astounding claims. Here is one standout quote from the minority report: 'There is no overwhelming demand for high-speed fibre-to-the-home broadband. On the contrary, demand is weak and interest is low.' In this day and age, they think that there is no demand for high-speed internet in Australian homes. And, they reckon, we should have inquired about the benefit of the NBN before we announced it. We should have inquired about whether or not we should have an NBN, but they tried 19 times to improve broadband in this country and were unable to get their act together. They reckon that we do not need 100 megabits per second, so do they think that relying on copper will deliver higher speeds than we have now? Really, it comes down to a choice between whether you continue to roll out copper or you go to fibre, which will inherently allow for higher speeds.

They reckon that because people do not know the full potential of the NBN we should not invest in broadband. They also argue that hospitals and businesses have access to high-speed broadband and that should be enough to satisfy the public—an insane argument. Then there is the worn-out argument that claims the net cannot be accessed because of high prices, and they reckon that people cannot spend money on broadband, as evidenced by the member for Wentworth today. Absurd.

I represent electorate that has a broad range of households of varying levels of wealth. To demonstrate how weak that argument was from the member for Wentworth, which claimed that people do not or cannot use the net because of costs, let me contrast this with the take-up of subscription TV. Depending on the package you take with subscription TV, the cost roughly compares to the prices that exist out there for broadband packages. In Chifley, I am told that access to subscription TV is up to nearly 50 per cent of households. There is not a cost barrier preventing people taking up subscription TV or broadband, because a lot of those households are already there. In fact, the uptake of subscription TV is actually lower than that of broadband. Cost is not the barrier but access to the network is. I have spoken in this place of suburbs like Woodcroft and Doonside that are screaming to get internet access and cannot do so because they cannot get access to ADSL, and wireless is too slow and weighed down by consumer numbers. They would love hearing the coalition's claim there is no overwhelming demand for high-speed, fibre-to-the-home broadband.

I commend the report and congratulate the opposition on their consistency. They were unable to deliver broadband in their time and are now absolutely determined to wreck the chance of others to get access to technology that their constituents enjoy. We had today this elitist argument from the member for Wentworth whose constituents enjoy high-speed broadband access. He worked so hard to stop people on the Central Coast, on the South Coast, in the Illawarra and in Western Sydney to gain access to high-speed broadband because he thought they should not get access to broadband, while his constituents currently enjoy it. I commend the report to the House.

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Ed Husic MP
Federal Labor Member for Chifley

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