Federation Chamber - Committees - National Broadband Network Committee

Mr HUSIC (Chifley) (12:31): It is a great pleasure of mine to be able to speak to this report—the fifth and final report of the joint committee. It is a project that has had a great degree of oversight in the rollout and in the management of the project itself. In fact, I have from time to time been concerned that we have overlaid too much oversight. I am certainly one for, obviously, the parliamentary ability to probe and test the way in which government business enterprises like this operate. But, when you consider all of the ways in which this project has people looking at it, you would not have a similar level of investigation imposed on an organisation external to government.

Having said that, NBN Co. has always sought—from my impression, and I am sure it would be the impression of others, particularly on the government side—to cooperate with questions and to be available to answer inquiries from members of parliament. Be it in estimates, the joint committee or the public hearings, they have tried to do the right thing, to talk about a project that is going to transform this nation. There is no doubt that this will economically transform the way that we operate, and it will put us at an advantage compared to other countries that have not been able to do this to the same breadth and the same level of detail that has been undertaken in this project.

It is an investment of just over $30 billion in a technology that is already, through the internet—if you take on board the Deloitte study—contributing about $50 billion in economic value to this country currently, and will contribute $70 billion into the future. It has already been indicated that that investment will have a return of seven per cent, but, to be honest, I see that the actual return itself will come when you look at the way that it will change the manner in which the economy operates, the way in which firms operate, the way in which communities connect and interrelate, the way that education is delivered in this country, and the way that health care is delivered in this country. On top of these things, the fact that there are applications and there are ways in which technology that is not currently known will do the same thing, is something to note.

I had the opportunity recently to speak to a venture tech firm, BlueChilli, that operate out of Sydney. They bring together capital and people who want to transform the way in which things are done at the moment through their own ideas, their own innovative energy, and completely alter the way in which people operate and conduct their business. These types of firms, from what I have seen—and this firm is based in the Sydney CBD—are doing remarkable things in terms of changing the way the business operates. And they certainly always encourage the innovators within their organisations to continue to think differently about what can be done, what we do now and how we can do it differently, and how we can add value to the economy. These are the types of firms that get unleashed when they have access to a technology that has been using, as a platform, what we are doing through the National Broadband Network.

Through this process we have tackled a massive capacity constraint. It is well known that the former government was told by bodies such as the Reserve Bank that capacity constraints would limit the ability of the economy to grow and that failing to do so would hurt the economy into the longer term. Those opposite tried, as has been reflected upon here, 19 times to address the fact that people could not get access to broadband. I represent people who had previously been stuck in a dial-up world—or a broadband wasteland, as I have described it—and faced very little chance that they would actually get access to modern telecommunications infrastructure. As a result of what we have been doing, we have been able, through a combination of the work being done by Telstra and the rollout being done by NBN Co., to free these people from being stuck with dial-up, which in this day and age is the technological equivalent of a dinosaur. We have freed suburbs such as Woodcroft and Doonside from that.

Last week my colleague the member for Greenway and I were proud to turn the NBN on in Blacktown with the minister for communications, Stephen Conroy. This has already seen 1,300 homes having access to the NBN at the outset. What has also been great is that RSPs like Telstra and Optus are out there now actively seeking customers and getting a tremendous response from customers who are wanting to sign up. In actual fact, if you look at the fifth report itself—and this is important—on page 19 it indicates that the revenue that NBN is receiving as a result of the RSPs going out and connecting customers and having this then flow back to NBN Co was $5.3 million and has risen by nearly $2 million since June of last year. So, in a short space of time it is already increasing the amount of money that it is generating as a result of customers coming onboard. And, as has been anecdotally indicated to me, once the customers get onboard with the NBN their usage changes. They use more and they want to be able to—and are certainly happy to—change their plans, because they are getting value for money per gigabyte that they are using as a household. And households like small businesses—for example, accounting firms that operate from home and design firms that operate from home—are now able to access a network. The more these home based businesses operate and the more people can change the way in which they work through telework, the more we will see other benefits. For example, in Western Sydney we are plagued very much by this issue of congestion in terms of traffic and the like. Being able to have economic development in local areas rather than having people feel that they have to travel long distances to conduct work will have huge economic benefit.

I mentioned earlier that there are other countries that have tried to do what we are doing. If you look at the US in particular, Verizon, through its fibre optic service, had gone to five states but has slowed down in its delivery because it does not have a dedicated investment program, unlike what is happening here. And Google is now rolling out fibre in Kansas and Utah and is expecting that these networks will operate profitably. Others are catching up and recognise that the use of this fibre instead of copper—fibre that delivers light at 300,000 kilometres per second and delivers a signal that has much more capacity and benefit and ability than anything that can be delivered on fibre—is a serious way in which to construct a future network.

That is why, when the opposition were in government, they had committees looking at this, and the member for Sturt even indicated in reports that he authored that, hands down, fibre is the best form of technology to deliver a modern broadband network. Certainly that has been evident, and there is very little to suggest otherwise. There is a suggestion that there will be a better form of technology—for example, a reliance on vectoring. Yes, vectoring does have its benefits, but most people will tell you that it is nowhere near as good as having fibre to the premises. Those opposite have had to come up with a policy for the sake of a policy but, having spent the best part of this parliamentary term determined to kill off this project, they have been unable to, due to two things. Firstly, they have an idea that nothing is wrong with the current broadband network in this country—and that does not stack up. Secondly, they have realised that businesses and the community expect a modern, robust form of infrastructure that will ensure that the country can progress in the years ahead and not stumble along in the way that they had been overseeing it when they were in office.

The opposition are continually focussed on the claim—and we continue to get this; we heard it from the member for Wentworth, and others, not necessarily those currently in the chamber, will probably bleat on today in reference to it—that NBN Co has failed to meet its forecast. In fact, the member for Wentworth today used the term 'catastrophic failure'.

An honourable member interjecting—

Mr HUSIC: He is using a word that denotes something extremely harmful either in a physical or financial sense. Financial ruin would occur as a result of the failure, in their words, to meet the targets. It is an absurd claim. They well know that the 2011-13 corporate plan was produced well before any definitive agreements had been signed up, before one of the biggest corporate agreements was signed with Telstra and before the Optus deal was even finalised, to ensure the handover of their network and their agreement in terms of the way in which NBN Co rolls out the network. They know that no-one in this country could have predicted that the ACCC would have brought down a points-of-interconnect decision that would see the points of interconnection increase by a multitude, from 14 to 121. Those opposite had never predicted it. It suits their political argument to say that it does not meet the target, while neglecting to mention the things that have happened in between. Any company will have to, from time to time, confront roadblocks and work out how they structure their corporate plans accordingly. Those opposite are unable to have the decency to tell the Australian public why these figures had changed.

There is no doubt that this project, as it picks up speed, will roll out further and further, and will not necessarily be held up by the type of scare campaigns that have been put by those opposite. We had the member for Wentworth, for example, picking up on this issue of asbestos. No-one doubts for one moment that the issue is one that is critical and needs to be managed properly. Asbestos has sat in the Telstra system for decades, and then the member for Wentworth says in an offhand remark that this has been known for some time by NBN and Telstra. Yes, it has been known by Telstra. I would be interested to go back to the initial prospectus that was put out as it was being privatised to see whether or not it was denoted as a risk. What did those opposite do, when they were in government for 13 years, about the issue of asbestos? In any due diligence process you would know that it is an issue and you would have to deal with it. I would be interested to know now what the opposition, in government, did to mitigate risk.

The fact of the matter is that there are very smart people in Telstra, who, while they will not be able to pinpoint right now where these things are on a network map, will be able to determine this, based on likely roll-out. They will be able to deal with it where the roll-outs occur, at any point in time, and they do. For example, in Kiama, where Silcar was used on the project, they had trained up all their staff and ensured that all the equipment was present and did not have one problem with the issue of asbestos. Asbestos is being used as a Trojan Horse by those opposite. I am not having them now confect a concern about asbestos when I, like many other people, heard the dismissive words expressed by the Leader of the Opposition to Bernie Banton. It was one of the most disgraceful episodes I have witnessed and it is beneath the Leader of the Opposition. If he has found a concern about asbestos I welcome it, but he should remember that his previous words haunt him in this regard.

The other thing I want to mention is workforce planning. There has been a great deal of reference made in the report to workforce planning and subcontractor planning. It has been one issue that I have been particularly interested in from the get-go. Before my life here as a member of parliament, it was something that I represented as the national president of a union that covers workers in this area. We have enormous talent that exists out there that we need to employ and deploy on this project. One of the concerns that I have is that Telstra should be used more and more in the rollout of this project, because they do have people within Telstra, in the lines and in the field workforce, who can be used.

One of the regrets I have is that NBN Co. has been stuck in a model that has been used and employed for many years in the sector, which is a contract-subcontract model. I doubt very much those opposite will move away from it. My issue with it is that NBN Co. does not have an internal workforce, and that internal workforce could easily be supplied by Telstra. You will not necessarily need an asset manager into the future with fibre. Fibre obviously costs a lot to deploy but costs very little to maintain into the future. There are people within Telstra and we should be forming a relationship with Telstra so they can be used more and more on the rollout of this project. This will ensure that the skills that are there within the sector can be employed to their best possible ability. It will also ensure that Telstra can aid NBN Co. in what is critical for them: network mapping, being able to determine the structure of the network and having robust systems into the future. I welcome this committee and all the work that it has done. It has done a great job for this parliament. In particular I note the contribution of the chairperson. (Time expired)

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Ed Husic MP
Federal Labor Member for Chifley


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