Mr HUSIC (Chifley—Government Whip) (20:38): It is my intention to deal with some of the comments made by the opposition spokesperson on communication later in my contribution. I want to deal with some of the points that he raised because they should not be left unanswered. He suggested that certain things have not been done. A cursory reading of the explanatory memorandum and of the legislation shows that they have. There will be a great degree of transparency and accountability in the way that TUSMA manages its affairs and the grants in relation to the universal service obligation. I will deal with that in the latter part of my contribution to the House.
I have, as have others on the government side, spoken at length about a number of things in relation to the provision of broadband services in the country. Firstly, I have spoken about how we need a faster and more reliable broadband service. Wherever I go in my electorate to talk about this, people are clamouring to get access to the NBN. I have spoken up for people in certain suburbs within the electorate of Chifley who have experienced major problems in getting some form of internet access over the last decade. They have been let down by a number of things. Some of those things include the types of regulatory arrangements that have been in place and the war that went on between Telstra and the former government over the provision of broadband services. Another was the former government’s inability on 19 separate occasions to get it right. They tried 19 times to get a broadband plan in place. Clearly, they saw the need for something to be done. Yet they come into this place now saying that we need to undertake a cost-benefit analysis. This after 19 failed attempts to deal with the huge demand for the high-speed and reliable broadband that is being enjoyed by many other nations in our region, where we do not even rate in terms of the quality or speed of our service. I have spoken at length on that.
The investment that this government is making in the National Broadband Network will not only meet the demand for faster and more reliable services but provide fibre-to-the-premise services to about 93 per cent of the country. The remainder will be provided service through either satellite or wireless. Coverage is an important element of the NBN, with many more Australians expected to enjoy the type of broadband speeds required to run small businesses these days. I talk with businesses in the electorate of Chifley, which I represent. Real estate agents, for example, talk about the need for agencies in a network to have connections with comparable speeds, because if they do not then the agency with the slowest speed dominates their internal network. Small business needs it.
Schools need it. This struck me when I visited William Dean Public School in Dean Park. They have entire computer rooms for primary school students. You can imagine the next generation becoming conversant with technology, adopting it in their daily lives, as many of us do in this place. And I note that the member for Paterson on the other side of the House using his iPad, adopting—as many of us have—technology that helps us become more efficient and productive. Young people who adopt technology will require faster speeds and better reliability. They want to see that. So small businesses and schools want this.
I had the pleasure of serving on the House of Representatives Infrastructure and Communications Committee. The Broadening the debate report talked about the improvements in health that will come about due to having access to faster broadband. Innovative new approaches will particularly benefit remote parts of Australia.
For quite some time, Australians have, as part of their communications services, been guaranteed universal service obligations. They have enjoyed certain protections 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. This has in more recent times been secured through the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Services Standards) Act 1999. Under the act, Telstra is the primary universal service provider, responsible for fulfilling the universal service obligation, referred to as the USO, throughout the whole of Australia. Telstra is obliged to have a policy statement and a marketing plan approved by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. The policy statement and marketing plan outline how Telstra intends to fulfil its obligations as the universal service provider, including its obligations to people with a disability, people with special needs and eligible priority customers.
The act also requires that losses that result from supplying loss-making services in the course of fulfilling the USO are to be shared among carriers. However, as alluded to earlier in my contribution, we are obviously on the threshold of major transformation within the sector on a number of grounds. Obviously, as technology changes we see changing consumer use. People were once dependent on landlines. Landline use in Australia is now declining and it is obvious why that is the case. People are taking up mobile phones. Instead of having landlines, they rely on mobile phones or on internet access to help drive the VoIP services. Certainly what was useful to read was the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman’s submission in December 2011 to the Senate inquiry into the legislative reform package. TIO, the independent watchdog, noted that the use of landline services in Australia has declined over recent years as consumers increasingly take up mobile, broadband and convergent technologies. They see that reflected when new complaints regarding landline services received by the TIO have decreased since 2008-09 with a stable number of new complaints received over 2009-10 and 2010-11. And you see a lot of this reflected too whenever Telstra brings out its financial statements of performance. They show how landline use is declining and obviously mobile and broadband use is increasing.
So you see the change in consumer use and you see that we are moving from copper to fibre. Also a dominant, vertically integrated player in the form of Telstra, under the reforms passed by this place and by the Senate, will eventually be structurally separated and the wholesale network will change as a result of the rollout of fibre to replace copper. That will mean that people will get access to new services. So the old USO which was copper based and provided by a dominant, vertically integrated player will over time be substituted by new services. As I mentioned earlier, with people using other ways to communicate—VoIP services, Skype—technology and industry change is requiring us to look differently at the USO and the way it is delivered. As a result, we have needed to bring in new bills to ensure continuity of the safeguards enjoyed by people for many years as we transition to the NBN.
On 23 June last year the government, along with Telstra, announced that these types of arrangements would be put in place to ensure, among other things, that Australians would have reasonable access to a standard telephone service and that payphones would be reasonably accessible to all Australians. There will be the ongoing delivery of the Emergency Call Service by Telstra—that is, calls to 000 and 112—the ongoing delivery of the National Relay Service and the appropriate safety net arrangements being in place to assist the migration of voice-only customers to an NBN fibre service.
It is worth noting that not everyone will want to get onto the internet using the NBN. Some people will just want to have telephone access in their home. We need to ensure that the NBN can provide that. As Telstra’s customer access network, the CAN, is decommissioned there will be a safety net in place to look after those people and technological solutions will be developed to support continuity of other public interest services such as public alarm systems and traffic lights. Obviously research will support working out the best way to do that.
As part of all that, as announced last year, the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency will be set up and this bill establishes the necessary framework to create TUSMA. Over time we will see the focus shift from services normally provided by Telstra—being the dominant player—ultimately being oversighted by TUSMA. They will be primarily responsible for entering into contracts or grants to deliver USO services, the 000 Emergency Call Service and the National Relay Service and will also support the continuing supply of services during transition to NBN.
The Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Universal Service Reform) Bill 2011 will allow the minister to permit USO regulatory obligations to be progressively lifted from Telstra, subject to Telstra meeting a number of preconditions. The progressive lifting of the USO will be linked to the rollout of the NBN and the structural separation of Telstra. The reform bill will phase out the existing USO and NRS levy arrangements and give ACMA the power to administer and enforce a new consolidated industry levy.
The Telecommunications (Industry Levy) Bill will impose a levy on relevant industry participants to contribute to the cost of TUSMA not otherwise funded by government and will effectively replace the current levies for the USO and NRS. And, being established as a statutory agency under the Financial Management and Accountability Act, it will have extensive reporting obligations. It will also be required to maintain a public register of grants and contracts. Again, the member for Wentworth seemed to suggest that these types of arrangements would not be in place but, as I stressed earlier, the explanatory memorandum sets out quite clearly that it will be required to implement and effectively administer telecommunications service agreements and grants and that there will be a degree of accountability to the parliament over these issues. They will continue to have some form of reporting back to the parliament and there will be oversight provisions.
The bills provide certainty, transparency and accountability, maintaining consumer safeguards as we transition. I am confident the legislation achieves the desired outcomes, providing continuity of safeguards under the USO. That is a view supported in the submission by the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman to the Senate committee I referred to earlier where they said:
The USO legislative reform package seeks to achieve continuity of key telecommunications safeguards in the transition to NBN. To this end, the policy objectives for the contracts or grants TUSMA will administer, set out in clause 11 of the Bill appear to largely reflect the objective.
We have also had the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network, the peak body representing consumers on communication issues, support the thrust of the objectives of the bills, stating that they do support the transition from universal service being the sole responsibility of Telstra to a universal service model open to new players.
There is also other community comment on this matter. The internet has transformed the way that the public can engage in this and that is a good thing. Someone who corresponds with me via Twitter, Michael Wyres, has reviewed the TUSMA arrangements and says there is a fear that, with the shutdown of the Telstra copper network, universal service obligations will disappear. He says:
Frankly, that was never going to happen—any government would be committing suicide by taking that protection away. The TA—the Telstra agreement—also ensures that in non-NBN fibre areas, the existing copper network would be maintained to allow for the continuation of an STS to people in those areas.
So there are people who are clearly analysing what is being put forward and who recognise protections will be in place but, importantly, who are reflecting on the fact that as telecommunications technology evolves we need to move with it and we need to ensure regulatory arrangements keep up with the times.