Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Submarine Cable Protection) Bill 2013

Speech – Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Submarine Cable Protection) Bill 2013

I rise to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Submarine Cable Protection) Bill 2013.

The Labor Party developed this legislation in government and will support it in opposition.

Australia’s international communication links are critically important to our economy and to our society.

When Australia was first connected to Europe by telegraph cable over 140 years ago, the impact on our economy was immediate. Our primary industries now had real-time information on the current prices of their commodities in our primary markets.

Today, fibre optic submarine cables are how Australia’s economy is fully integrated into the global marketplace. While physical goods travel by ship or by plane, contracts are negotiated and payments are made by electronic communication.

Large and small businesses as well as individual consumers depend on these links.

There are 14 mainstream fibre pairs out of Australia. Each carries between 1,000 and 2,000 gigabits per second of active traffic. Each of these fibres is laid across the ocean floor where they can be damaged, especially by anchors of ships.

To protect these critical links, schedule 3A of the Telecommunications Act creates a power for the creation of protection zones that restrict activities which could result in cable damage. The Labor government reviewed the operation of this scheme and identified five ways in which it can be improved. The bill implements these reforms.

Under this legislation, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) will have the power to set standard conditions that could apply to protection zone limits. It will also have the power to set standard conditions that would apply to non-protection zone permits.

ACMA will also be allowed to only publish a summary of proposals to declare, vary or revoke a protection zone. Protection zones can be provided around other cables of national significance that are wholly within Australian waters, and inconsistencies will be removed between the legislation and Australia’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

I know the Liberal Party talk a lot about reducing regulation but schemes like this remind us of why regulation is often so important. We support this important legislation. Without denying this bill being read a second time, I move:

That all the words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading the House notes that:

(1) in his Second Reading Speech, the Minister acknowledged:

a) the importance of communications infrastructure to our economy; and

b) the unforeseen evolution of technology and services that could be facilitated using submarine communications cables when Australia’s links were first developed in the nineteenth century;

(2) it is critical for policy makers to adopt a forward-looking view of our nation’s communications and infrastructure requirements; and

(3) the assertion that broadband speeds of 25Mbps will continue to be sufficient for the needs of Australian households in future is inconsistent with items (1) and (2).”

In his second reading speech, the Minister reminded us of the 1990s boom in international capacity and noted that, over time, demand has caught up with the extraordinary increase in capacity. He spoke approvingly of the way investment in international communications infrastructure has been developed to meet future traffic needs and he said:

Modern submarine cables typically provide multiple terabits per second of capacity when deployed and can be further upgraded, positioning them to meet future traffic demands.

The Minister did not constrain his remarks to submarine cables in his second reading speech. He spoke at length about the National Broadband Network—and this is where the debate gets interesting.

The Government has praised the rollout of international undersea fibre optic cable for being forward-looking but is not adopting the same approach to the rollout of fibre optic cable on land here at home. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Prime Minister’s statement, when he was opposition leader a few months ago, when he said that he is:

… absolutely confident that 25 megabits per second is going to be enough—more than enough—for the average household.

I suspect that in the years ahead we will look back on these words in the same way that we look back on other memorably short-sighted predictions, like those of the president of IBM who, in 1943 said that the world market for computers might be five, or Ken Olsen’s statement in 1977 that, ‘There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.’

The Minister criticised the NBN at length in this debate. Allow me to respond.

The National Broadband Network is the biggest and most important infrastructure project in Australia and it is important that it is done right. We think that means using fibre, not copper which we will have to replace with fibre down the track. The Government has a different view. They are proposing to use fibre to a node or a box in the street and then use the old copper network to homes and businesses. It begs the obvious question: who is right?

In the short time I have been in this shadow portfolio, every expert I have spoken to has told me the same thing—that is, that fibre is the end game, and that that is where we have to get to. The Minister has said much the same thing and the new Chairman of NBN Co., Dr Ziggy Switkowski, has also said this. A few years ago he said that an all-fibre network is desirable end point.

The question then is not whether we need fibre to our homes and businesses; it is whether we build this in one stage or in two. Labor’s argument is, if fibre is the end game, if we are going to need it, then just like the submarine fibre cables which are the focus of this legislation, we should plan for the future and build it now.

Japan, South Korea and Singapore are all investing in fibre to the premises. So is New Zealand and so should we. Otherwise, we are putting ourselves at a disadvantage—left behind with a second-class, second-rate broadband network.

There have been problems with the construction of the NBN. That is not good enough and needs to be fixed but we should not stop building it. Building a fibre optic network to homes and businesses is the right policy and we should be speeding up its construction, not throwing it out.

The government has promised a faster and a cheaper NBN, but they are not off to a good start. Since the election, construction has slowed down and they have broken their promise to honour all existing contracts, leaving half a million Australians in limbo, not sure whether they will get fibre to the premises or fibre to the node.

[Debate interrupted.]

Before the adjournment last night, I was making the point that the Government is not off to a good start in implementing its own second-rate version of the NBN. I made the point that construction of NBN had slowed down since the election and that the Government had broken its promise to honour every existing contract, which had left about half a million homes and businesses in Australia in limbo—unsure whether they would get fibre all the way to the premises or whether they would get the slower, second-rate, second-class version that the government had promised before the election, fibre to the node.

In addition to that, construction companies have not been given enough work and, despite the promises that the minister has made that he would ensure that companies would not have to lay off people, contractors have had to lay off staff. Workers have been laid off in different parts of the country, and the most recent example of that was publicised in the Illawarra Mercury only a few weeks ago, where up to 40 workers from Thiess who were previously working on the construction of the NBN have been put off.

In the last week or so I have been to the Illawarra and to the Central Coast of New South Wales and have met some of the half a million that the Minister has taken off the NBN rollout map. I can tell you that they are furious. Some people cannot get ADSL at the moment; they cannot work from home; and their children cannot study, using the internet. They are desperate to get the NBN; they were supposed to get it in the next few months—some before Christmas, some next year. Now they are being told that they have been taken off the rollout map and left in limbo. They honestly do not know what is happening.

The Minister has claimed in this place that they were taken off the map because nothing was happening—no construction work had started, there were only designs on a map. But that is not what residents have told me. They told me that NBN trucks have been up and down their street and that NBN workers have been putting ropes into pipes and pits in their streets. So, claims that no physical construction work has occurred in many of these areas is nonsense. Dr Switkowski, the chairman and acting CEO of the NBN, had to concede as much when he appeared before the Senate committee on the NBN last week. When he was shown photos of work being done in locations like this, he said that it looked like construction to him. The trucks have gone from a lot of these areas now, and residents of the Illawarra, the Central Coast and elsewhere want them back.

Last week the government struck another problem. The media got a copy of the secret advice that the NBN Co. had prepared for the incoming minister’s brief, and it is, by all accounts, pretty devastating. It pulls apart the government’s plan for fibre to the node and essentially says that it cannot be implemented in the time frame the government has set.

According to reports in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, the coalition’s NBN plan is inadequate, poorly planned and unlikely to be completed on time. The report says that the revenue the NBN will make under the coalition’s plan will drop by up to 30 per cent. It also says it will compromise the provision of telehealth, distance education, internet TV and other business applications.

Of most concern, though, the report says that the coalition’s promise to provide everyone in Australia with access to 25 megabits per second by 2016 is unlikely to be able to be implemented. Ziggy Switkowski said something similar when he gave evidence to the Senate committee last week. He described keeping this promise—the promise to all Australians to get access to 25 megabits per second by 2016—as ‘very, very demanding’. That is code or bureaucratic-speak for ‘not going to happen’.

To give you an idea of how hard it will be for the government to keep this promise, Dr Switkowski told the committee that no other country in the world had ever rolled out fibre to the node as quickly as this, and that it would require the construction and the installation of between 60,000 and 80,000 nodes or boxes on street corners or 2,000 of these boxes or nodes a week—no small feat.

It is no wonder then that the Minister has refused to release his incoming minister’s brief. It tells him that he probably cannot keep the promises that he made before the election. Given the broken promises that we have seen on education, on debt and on everything else, the government needs another broken promise like it needs a hole in the head.

We are now waiting for the Minister to release his strategic review of the NBN. He received it yesterday and he should release it. By his own words, the minister has set a very high bar for this report. He said he wants it to be rigorous and forensic. He said two weeks ago he wants “hand on heart, realistic and achievable options, prudently costed and scoped, on which we can make weighty decisions”.

If the Government is going to move from a fibre-to-the-premises model to a fibre-to-the-node model, this strategic review needs to provide realistic costs to fix the copper network and then to maintain the copper network that they are going to use. If this report does not provide that information then it will have failed. I am not talking here about estimates or assumptions or international comparisons; I am talking about hard data provided by Telstra, who currently run the copper network, that is independently tested and independently audited.

Evidence presented to the Senate committee last week claimed that up to 80 per cent of the copper network needs work. I have heard suggestions that maintenance of the current copper network alone could cost between half a billion dollars and $900 million a year. Put another way, maintaining our copper network over the next decade could cost between $5 billion and $9 billion.

That is why we need this information in the strategic review. We need to know both how much it is going to cost to fix the copper network so that it is fit for purpose and how much it will cost to maintain it. As the minister has said, these are weighty decisions he has to make, and before you make weighty decisions you need this hard data, independently tested. Those are just a few of the questions that we need answers to. Here are a few more:

Does NBN Co. plan to buy or lease the copper network from Telstra?

What plans do they have to utilise the existing HFC network?

How is the Government going to plug the existing gaps in the HFC network and will they ensure that a HFC network used as part of the NBN has access for everyone—that it is not a closed network, that it is open access?

Given the government’s promise to make the NBN easy to convert to a full fibre-to-the-premises network in the future, we need to know exactly how this will be done. We need answers to these sorts of questions in the strategic review.

I said at a conference on the NBN a few weeks ago that the Labor Party has won the debate about superfast broadband. We were roundly defeated at the last election, but it was not because of this. People did not vote for the Government because of their broadband policy; in fact, I suspect many people voted for the Government in spite of it. But the Coalition, to their credit, have changed their position.

Three years ago the Prime Minister—then the Opposition Leader—told his team, told the Shadow Minister, to demolish the NBN. A lot has changed. Now they are saying they are going to keep it, even if in a reduced form, even if through gritted teeth.

They are doing this because the Liberal Party realises that the NBN is a bit like Medicare—it is too popular to destroy. My argument to the government is that, if you are going to do this, if you are going to build the NBN, then do it properly and do what Robert Menzies did.

When Robert Menzies was in opposition in 1949 he was one of the fiercest critics of the Snowy hydro scheme. He criticised it up hill and down dale. Two months before the 1949 election, Robert Menzies refused to attend the launch event for the Snowy hydro scheme, but when he became Prime Minister, Robert Menzies changed his mind. He supported the Snowy hydro scheme; he backed it and he built it. This Prime Minister, I fear, is no Robert Menzies.

I do not think the Prime Minister understands how important the NBN is, how important this infrastructure is. In the past he has described it as ‘essentially a video entertainment system’. But this Prime Minister has also described himself as the infrastructure Prime Minister. He has promised to build the infrastructure of the 21st century, promised to build the infrastructure that Australia needs. Guess what? This is what it is. This is what the NBN is. It is quintessentially the infrastructure of the 21st century, and you cannot be the infrastructure Prime Minister if you are cutting the biggest and most important infrastructure project in Australia.

The Prime Minister is no Robert Menzies, but the Minister for Communications could be. He could have the same change of heart that Robert Menzies had. He gets it, he understands it. In his heart of hearts he knows how important this project is. He knows that 25 megabits per second is not going to be enough, more than enough, for the average household.

He knows that creating a digital divide between areas with fibre and those without, building new estates that will have fibre to the premises while old estates have fibre to the node, is bad policy, that we should not be creating a society of haves and have-nots. He knows enough to know better. It is not too late for the Minister for Communications to become another Menzies.

I move:

That all the words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading the House notes that:

(1) in his Second Reading Speech, the Minister acknowledged:

a) the importance of communications infrastructure to our economy; and

b) the unforseen evolution of technology and services that could be facilitated using submarine communications cables when Australia’s links were first developed in the nineteenth century;

(2) it is critical for policy makers to adopt a forward-looking view of our nation’s communications and infrastructure requirements; and

(3) the assertion that broadband speeds of 25Mbps will continue to be sufficient for the needs of Australian households in future is inconsistent with items (1) and (2).”