Just a stone’s throw from my office in Kingston, in the municipality of Kingborough, is the coastal suburb of Howden. It is important to remember through this speech that Howden is about 15 minutes from the CBD of Hobart. According to the latest census, Howden has a population of 658. The main public facilities in the town are the fire station, home to the local volunteer fire brigade, and behind it a small community hall, owned by the Howden Progress Association.
Just last month, that hall was the venue for a meeting between local residents, me and the shadow minister for communications, Jason Clare. Residents packed into the hall to air their frustrations about the quality, or lack thereof, of internet access. To give you an idea of what they are experiencing, I will read some of the comments from that meeting that were published in the local newspaper, the Kingborough Chronicle: ‘As a family of six, our biggest issue with living in Howden is the woeful internet access preventing our children from being able to do their homework.’ And from another resident: ‘Our slow and often unreliable internet made it difficult for me to do tasks online for university work while I was writing my thesis via distance, and working at home. We also rely on the internet to keep in touch with our families, who all live overseas, and slow connections/expensive and small bandwidth has made this considerably more difficult than it should be.’ The following comment came from someone who worked as an IT infrastructure manager for a superannuation fund: ‘I can’t believe the situation in Howden. I can barely work from home at the best of times and I have three children that can’t realistically use the internet for homework, study, research or entertainment purposes.’ And finally this comment from a business owner: ‘I brought my business into Tasmania from the mainland four years ago, where I run it from my home office. We are a young family. This year, I’ve spent in excess of $20,000 launching a second online business, which is experiencing strong growth. These are geographically neutral businesses, with clients all over the world. It’s pretty embarrassing to try and Skype my United Kingdom or United States clients when the internet keeps dropping out.’
The President of the Howden Progress Association told the meeting and the local media that another business owner had actually left Howden because of the situation with internet access. There was also a resident who said that her daughter had to drop out of an online university course because it was too difficult to access and complete the coursework. This resident was spending $500 a month for a service which had a download limit of 28 gigabytes and which dropped out whenever the weather was bad.
Labor initiated the National Broadband Network because we understood that, for most families and businesses, fast broadband is an essential public utility, like electricity, roads or water. We also understood that there was a situation of market failure in relying on the private sector to deliver for the broadband needs of rural and regional Australia. We recognised the importance of information and communications technology—on which all businesses and public institutions rely—for our nation’s global competitiveness. And we recognised that, without making broadband a public policy issue, Australia would continue to fall further behind the rest of the world in terms of broadband speeds.
Australia is currently ranked 44th for average internet speeds, despite being one of the world’s most advanced economies. Embarrassingly, we are ranked marginally behind New Zealand—and, as all Australians know, we hate being beaten by New Zealand in anything. But, as with this year’s Rugby World Cup, we have suffered that indignity, because New Zealand is currently rolling out fibre-to-the-premises broadband. Under Labor’s plan, we would have been beating New Zealand, just like in the cricket.
Howden is in category E for broadband availability, the worst of five categories. It is one of those ‘worst served areas’ that Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull promised to prioritise in the NBN rollout. Labor had plans to have the NBN rolled out in Tasmania by the end of this year, with Howden to receive super-fast fibre to the premises, capable of speeds of up to 1,000 megabits per second. But the Turnbull government’s new multi-technology mix, or MTM, has caused significant delays to the NBN rollout.
Despite two years in government, and their promise to have every home and business connected by the end of 2016, those opposite have only just started to deliver their second-rate fibre-to-the-node connections. The rollout plan for Tasmania listed Howden as having construction commence in the second half of 2016. This means the NBN in Howden would likely not be ready for service until sometime in the first half of 2017. I and the residents of Howden were eagerly awaiting nbn co’s latest three-year rollout plan to see if there would be any improvement to this situation, only to find that the suburb was not even listed. I put questions to nbn co about this in Senate estimates, which have been taken on notice.
The residents of Howden have, along with millions of other Australians, been the victims of Mr Turnbull’s NBN debacle. So desperate are those opposite to try and blame the former Labor government for their own failings on the NBN that they have resorted to misrepresenting advice from nbn co. Yesterday, my colleague Senator O’Neill put a question to the Minister for Communications, Senator Fifield, in question time about his misleading claims that the NBN, under Labor’s plans, would cost $20 billion to $30 billion more and not be completed until 2028. The CEO of nbn co, Mr Bill Morrow, testified to the Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network that these estimates were based not on Labor’s plans but on a hypothetical restart of an all-fibre build. The inconvenient truth for this government is that it is their MTM that has caused the delays, as you can see from this exchange in Senate estimates:
Senator CONROY: Summarising: the ink is still drying on the MIMA contracts; all the FTTN you have switched on to date has been built by Telstra who are taking no further part in the construction; you still do not know the state of the copper network; your knowledge of the HFC network assets is limited; you have identified skill shortages; you have not signed any HFC construction contracts; you do not have a single paying HFC customer; you only have a handful of paying FTTN customers; the HFC product set has not been released; and the IT systems are not complete. You believe that you can connect half of the country to the NBN in two years, but that, fortunately, is after the next election.
Mr Morrow: All of that is correct.
Despite efforts by the government to also blame Labor for the NBN’s $15 billion cost blow-out, former nbn co CEO Mike Quigley has released detailed advice showing that the government’s MTM is to blame for the cost blow-out. And Mr Quigley’s advice has been confirmed by the current CEO, Mr Morrow, who said in a press conference that it ‘mostly related to the two new technologies that we’re using’—referring to the HFC cable and fibre-to-the-node rollouts. Contrary to the government’s pre-election slogan of ‘Fast. Affordable. Sooner.’ their policies have caused the delays and cost blow-outs that now plague the project.
Last Saturday, the Howden Progress Association held a community barbecue, attended by several dozen people. They used the barbecue to promote a petition to be tabled in the Senate urging action to get the NBN rolled out to Howden as soon as possible. I understand that, as well as the attention of local media, the residents have several hundred signatures on their petition, and nbn co are taking notice. Just last Friday, I received word from the company that they have reviewed the technology used to roll the network out to Howden. NBN connections in Howden will now be delivered via fixed wireless through a capacity upgrade to an existing fixed wireless tower in Snug and a new tower in Tinderbox, which is currently going through planning approval. This work is expected to commence in the third quarter of 2016. The fixed wireless connection will give the residents of Howden access to peak download speeds of 50 megabits per second and peak upload speeds of 20 megabits per second. I understand from nbn co that they expect this decision to speed up the rollout of the network in Howden, although I am still waiting on advice from nbn co on when they expect Howden to be ready for service. While it is too late to unscramble the MTM omelette, I will say with confidence that Howden would have had their internet woes fixed sooner had the government proceeded with Labor’s NBN rollout plan. It is clear from the delays and cost blow-outs that MTM does not stand for ‘multitechnology mix’ but rather for ‘Malcolm Turnbull’s mess’.