Subjects: NBN in Regional Australia, ACCC Broadband Monitoring Scheme.

HOST JULIE CLIFT: In the last couple of weeks we've heard the Federal Government defending its Mobile Blackspot Program after the last round of funding didn't include the local electorates, and if you've been keeping a close eye on the news you might have noticed the NBN hasn't been having an easy time either around the country. There continues to be many dissatisfied customers but do Labor have any solutions to offer to the issues plaguing the Government. Shadow Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland is visiting Orange today and joins us in the studio. Good morning to you.


CLIFT: Thank you for coming in this morning Minister. Let’s start with why you're in Orange today.

ROWLAND: I've always had an abiding interest in regional areas of Australia and the way in which they contribute to the national economy, and the way in which we need to ensure that they remain within that conversation. Just to give you an example: a colleague of mine recently said they were in Japan, he's in the tech space and Japan is having a focus on smart rural areas, as opposed to this focus in metropolitan Australia on smart cities, and that's party driven by the fact that they've got a very ageing population, they’ve got a declining population in their regions. I know that is quite different to here in Orange where jobs growth seems to have been quite strong and unemployment seems to be quite low, but the notion of having regional ICT policy is something that really appeals to me. I came from a background as a commercial lawyer specialising in communications, so this notion of inclusiveness and making sure we have regional Australia as part of the conversation is very important to me which is why I'm here today.

CLIFT: In terms of inclusiveness, certainly most recently there’s a big push on by the Federal Government to talk about decentralisation and talking about having centres, for example, like Orange in regional NSW becoming bigger centres by this push to decentralise. Whenever we talk about decentralisation though it’s coupled with the idea that there are issues with communications and that will prevent further settling of people here in, for example, the Central West. What is Labor going to do to address the issues in terms of communications? 

ROWLAND: Well you're absolutely right in terms of communications being a fundamental input to any economy. It’s just as standard as you would say, 'I’m going to buy a house does it have electricity, does it have water', the question arises 'does it have broadband, do I have adequate communications services'? So our focus has always been on ensuring that, backed up by the principal of equality of opportunity, we've got exactly the same opportunities, exactly the same quality of services in regional areas as we would in metro areas. Which again brings us to the issues of the NBN and you were saying earlier about how it’s been plagued with problems most recently. We have a situation here in Orange where there's around 17,000 premises that can access the NBN. Now that’s mostly through fibre-to-the-node which is a copper-based solution. So we have been pushing, and Labor's original broadband of course, was to have fibre-to-the-premises, with some mix of fixed wireless and some satellite services. We've seen over the 2015-16 year the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman report a 150% increase in NBN complaints. Now whether that flows through to some of your listeners who want to have some input I'd be very interested in knowing, but I think again this goes to the whole issue of we're not just talking about metropolitan areas that need to have the best services possible, it's regional areas as well.

CLIFT: I’m speaking to Shadow Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland who's in Orange today to talk about communications and as she said, happy to hear from you if you've got issues, we know you do, you're constantly letting us know. Robert from Spring Terrace has texted in to say:

'With the NBN as the topic this morning, I would like to point out that its availability to consumers is, and continues to be, a problem. As an example, we live in the middle off three NBN towers, speaking there about Spring Hill, Forrest Reefs and Cadia Road. A single tower supposed to send the signal 14km however we are only 7km from one and the signal is not strong enough to allow us to receive the service. I think the positioning of these towers is problematic and many people are disadvantaged by this. Thankfully the ADSL copper line is still in place.' 

ROWLAND: I think that raises two quite salient points. Firstly, there are a lot of people who have been put onto the NBN who are saying that their service is actually inferior to what they were getting previously. So that gentlemen there was getting an ADSL service. Unfortunately I don't think he's going to be able to switch back, and unfortunately there are a lot of people I hear from who say they wish they simply had what they had previously. The issues of towers is again quite a problematic one and one which unfortunately it’s not a standalone set of complaints. I've heard this from quite a few regional areas where they can literally see a certain tower and it’s facing the wrong way so they actually can’t get that signal. So that's something that needs to be brought up with NBNCo and again that's one of the reasons I'm here and it's to let people know, for example, with the levels of speeds that have been advertised, whether you're getting these speeds, whether you’re getting that quality, that the ACCC is actually conducting a broadband monitoring scheme now, you can go to, they are looking for volunteers from all over Australia to see what sort of quality, what sort of speeds are being provided and quite frankly whether people are getting the speeds that they paid for. It’s becoming a significant issue of the consumer experience and unfortunately it's one that's taken quite a while for this government to address. So I’m very keen to ensure that regional Australia does have a say in that, including residents here in Orange. 

CLIFT: What happens in terms of Labor? As you said, you had the original plan which was all about fibre optic. That hasn't happened and it is now a copper service and, as you said, it's not necessarily to the home it's to the node. What do you do then say for example in 2019 you get into Government; what do you do to sort out what your suggesting hasn’t been the correct roll-out of the NBN?

ROWLAND: Well, we went to the last election with a costed business plan to have an increase of up to 2 million more premises with fibre-to-the-home. Unfortunately we didn’t win the last election so the business case will need to be started again. We’re probably going to end up at the end if this term in a situation where the Government is going to be able to say 'look we've decided the roll-out is finished, complete, everyone being able to have this delivered primarily through fibre-to-the-node'. So we will have to have a look at what business case is available at that time, but in the meantime of course fibre has always been our first best preference, but in the meantime we've also been advocating for those areas that aren't in the design or construction phase yet and are schedule to get fibre-to-the-node: have a look at whether or not they could possibly get what’s called fibre-to-the-distribution-point or fibre-to-the-kerb. So it doesn't go all the way to the home, but it certainly goes a lot closer that fibre-to-the-node would. And sometimes in those cases a few metres difference can make a real substantial impact in terms of service quality. So that's where we are at the moment. Of course our preference has always been to have fibre-to-the-home, and look - Malcolm Turnbull in his heart of hearts knows that one day an incoming government if we are going to be internationally competitive if we are going to have world class broadband it is going to be a matter of actually saying 'how do we retro-fit this thing'. And that is a very expensive exercise and one that you would have to look at from Government. 

CLIFT: So you're suggesting that probably in 2019 it’s going to be too expensive an exercise for the incoming Labor Government?

ROWLAND: One would hope not. One would hope we have a situation where we can salvage what we can, but this is a consequence of going down a path that is quite short-sighted and not doing it right, not doing it right the first time with fibre.

CLIFT: What do you say to people this morning though? You've offered them the idea that the ACCC is looking for people to volunteer in terms of giving their feedback. What else can people do in the meantime? You're in opposition you can do only so much. What are you telling people this morning to do?

ROWLAND: Well I think people need to voice their concerns. I've been doing NBN forums around Australia. I've been to recently Hobart and also the Macarthur region of Sydney, and in both of those I thought 'this has been advertised, we'll have a few people coming along, I suspect there will be young people', I tell you people we're spilling out the door and they weren't just young people, they were older people as well, quite frustrated. And having an 85 year old father myself and when his broadband goes down sometimes he is literally cut off from the world. So this is a serious issue for every demographic. But you need to complain. People need to know the only reason why the Federal Government is acting now is because they know about the amount of pressure that Labor's been putting on them, and that pressure has been coming as a result of the consumer experience and the feedback that we've been getting in our own electorates. There’s no other justification for the fact they sat on this recommendation for 14 months to have a broadband monitoring scheme. So complain, complain to your local member, complain to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, and if you're getting the run around between your retail service provider and NBNCo complain to both of them as well.