04 December 2013


I am very pleased to rise to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Submarine Cable Protection) Bill 2013 and, in particular, to support the amendment moved by the shadow minister for communications, the member for Blaxland. I was very heartened by the words of the minister in his second reading speech, which included an overview of the evolution of infrastructure in relation to submarine cable systems and the way in which technological developments have led to unforeseen benefits for the industry, for consumers and for the world economy as a whole. This infrastructure was initially limited to telegraph messages but was then extended to voice and now to data.

The minister’s speech reminded me of some of the dangers of trying to predict the future, particularly in an age of rapid technological change. I am sure that those people who laid those cables could not possibly have foreseen the uses to which they would be put in the modern age. It also reminds me of some bad predictions that have been made regarding technology. The shadow minister highlighted at least one, but my favourite is from Sir William Preece: ‘The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.’ One can only judge from that quote that short-sightedness catches up with policymakers and with society as a whole if we do not do things properly, if we underestimate the pace and scope of change and opportunity.

I would have thought that, considering his second reading speech, the minister would have appreciated the dangers of predicting limitations in technology. I have heard he invented the internet. Yesterday, I believe, he told his party room he invented television. It stands to reason that a minister in a portfolio such as his would appreciate that technology requires forward thinking, forward policy-making and notions of not limiting ourselves to not only nascent markets but unthought-of markets at any given time.

The great irony of this bill is that it is all about the importance of submarine cables as vital infrastructure connecting us to the rest of the world. The minister mentioned in his second reading speech an APEC report—I am sure it is the same one that I have looked at. I am not sure if he read it, but, if he did, the irony has certainly escaped him on this occasion. He will come to understand that when I take some quotes from it. These are vital pieces of infrastructure that must be built properly the first time, not limited to what can be accomplished when they are first laid but protected for the future so that technology can adapt and exploit to its full extent.

I note that in the APEC Policy Support Unit document Economic Impact of Submarine Cable Disruptions Australia is described as one of the best practice case studies, along with Hong Kong and China. That is relevant to the substance of the bill. Australia, it is noted, has ‘regulatory provisions to aid the protection of submarine cables in and around Australia’ and works with significant international community fora to make that happen. It notes that there are submarine cable protection zones in Australia off the east coast and off the west coast and that activities likely to damage these cables are prohibited or restricted inside the protection zones. Those activities include activities such as trawling, anchoring, mining and dredging. I will draw the attention of the House to some very interesting aspects of this APEC report.

[Debate suspended for Statements by Members]

I was relaying to the House some of the very important information contained in the APEC report on the economic impact of submarine cable disruption, and I was talking about how the growth in bandwidth and the increasing need for international bandwidth is one of the most potent drivers of the need for upgraded infrastructure, both in Australia and between countries. As is pointed out in this report:

The amount of data and information generated, sent and received worldwide using this global network has been experiencing unmatched growth since then and has far exceeded any kind of information transmission known before.

So it is quite clear that we could not have predicted at the time these cables were first installed, particularly cables installed to Australia, what they would, indeed, be capable of achieving. This goes back to the whole point of this bill, and the point of the opposition’s amendment in this case: when you seek to try to predict the limitations of technology in the future you will fail; you will come off second best. As I have said in this place in relation to the NBN, one thing that is continually overlooked by this government, which they have never come to terms with, is that the NBN is not about the download; it is about the upload. It is about what people are capable of doing with it. That is quite clear, and you do not have to take it from me. Have a look at the coalition’s own broadband plan that it released in April 2013. Do a word search and you will not find the word ‘upload’ once.

The total incapacity of this government to grasp the nature of the NBN is absolutely staggering. You can tell why, when the now government were in opposition, they did not want to talk about this—on 20 August, we had reports that the now Minister for Communications finally admitted his NBN upload speeds would actually be very small—negligible compared with what is capable of delivery under Labor’s NBN. This is not an insignificant matter. Even the United States, as the Congressional Research Service pointed out in July this year, is seeking a number of goals under its national broadband plan. Goal No. 1 is that at least 100 million US homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second—not the 25 megabits per second that the government want to give you—and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits per second. On TechAU on 20 August: ‘Turnbull finally admits his NBN upload speed will be 4 to 6 Mbps.’ Well, I think that speaks for itself about the absolute short-sightedness of this government and about their absolute inability to grasp what every other developed country in the world is doing, particularly those in our region.

I will point to some even more recent news. In answer to questions put to him in Senate estimates, Ziggy Switkowski, the new acting chief of NBN Co., said:

Maybe I would rephrase the question: do you think for the next decade, which is probably as far as one can think reasonably, there will be a situation where a significant upgrade from FTTN to FTTP will be justified and required? There is a good chance the answer to that will be no.

And he warned against putting too much weight into arguments for higher internet speeds predicated on the assumption that speeds will be justified by as yet un-thought-of applications. Well, who would have thought even five years ago what the market for applications would be globally? It just shows, again, the short-sightedness of this government.

I am disappointed that the member for Ryan is not here, because I followed her speech where she talked about how good the government’s policy is compared with Labor’s NBN policy. But I am glad the member for Moreton is here, because he will be well-versed in this special that I would like to regale the House with. There is a very special chronology here involving the member for Ryan, and I am sure it typifies the views of many of those opposite on the NBN. On 9 December 2008, the Courier Mail reported: ‘Brisbane to spend $500,000 on superfast broadband’. The article goes on to say that Campbell Newman has approved half a million dollars to future-proof Brisbane, and it continues:

“This is about future proofing our city to ensure we have the capacity to sustain the economic growth of which we all know we are capable”, he said.

…   …   …

Economic Development Chair Jane Prentice believes the project will help Brisbane to keep up with world leaders in broadband technology.

“During a recent trade mission to Korea with the Lord Mayor, the benefits of having high speed fibre connection became clear,” she said.

Note: high-speed fibre—not copper, which is what the member for Ryan and those opposite want to give to the rest of us. Again in 2008: ‘Brisbane to get high-speed fibre grid: High speed optical fibre network in Brisbane could provide 15,000 jobs, tip an estimated $5 billion into the local economy’. Internet speeds between 100 megabits and a gigabit per second—so she was very ready to do that for Brisbane, but not ready to do that for everyone else. But it gets better: ‘she was encouraged again to push ahead for the project after visiting South Korea’. And here we have the Sydney Morning Herald on October 19, 2010: ‘Will Brisbane broadband get flushed? The company charged with installing Brisbane’s broadband network has recently been forced to abandon its sewer delivery method in a smaller United Kingdom project.’ And it goes on: ‘Sewer broadband deal sours’ in the same paper on 23 February 2011.

Brisbane council has dumped the company charged with providing Brisbane’s controversial sewer broadband scheme. … Opposition Leader—

on Brisbane City Council—

Shayne Sutton has questioned why the deal was being spruiked before a contract was signed.

And rightly so. Campbell Newman said:

… he announced the i3 Asia Pacific partnership in October, because “We thought we had a deal.”

…   …   …

“I am extremely concerned—

said Councillor Shane Sutton

about the lack of transparency surrounding this entire scheme,”…

—and rightly so. Lack of transparency appears to be becoming the order of the day on the ‘fraudband’ project that the government is trying to inflict on Australian people.

I do want to mention—and it was mentioned in question time today—the minister attacking Mike Quigley yet again. He has a habit of doing that, Mr Deputy Speaker Mitchell, as I am sure you well know, having been a member of the Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network with me in the previous parliament. But I do not want to attack the new Executive Chairman and I will not. Instead, I will draw into question the judgement of the minister, for whom it was confirmed at estimates that the now executive chairman was approached about the role well before the election. He also confirmed that he worked at NBN Co. now for 3½ days a week . How much does 3½ days a week make per month? He is making $50,000 a month. I know that is beer money—Bollinger money—for the minister, but for the rest of us it is not an insignificant amount. And, on the topic of laughing it up in question time today on the other side, we had the member for Herbert asking about Townsville. And I have a blog post here which he wrote in March this year. He asked the question: ‘My mum is 81 years old. She uses Facebook, does the occasional email and books movie tickets online. Does she really need fibre? What is all this for?’ Well, if the member for Herbert would care to refresh his memory, he would know that a very important series of trials were done in Townsville on a very important issue that I am sure everyone in the House would agree needs to be dealt with, and that is diabetes—the NBN Diabetes Telehealth Trial in Townsville, which was taking advantage of high-speed, in-home, fibre-to-the-home broadband to be able to deliver a very important telehealth scheme. In Senate estimates in October last year, a question was asked on e-health and the NBN telehealth trials:

The National Broadband Network (NBN) telehealth trials are funded through the National Partnership Agreement on the Digital Regions Initiative. They comprise the:

Townsville NBN-Diabetes Enabled Telehealth Trial; and…

The trials are delivered in partnership with the …Queensland State Government and use the NBN to provide in-home telehealth services. The Townsville Telehealth trial … provide[s] in-home monitoring of key health indicators, video consultations between patients and locally based nurse coordinators and health professionals, as well as education services to promote healthier lifestyles.

One would think this is a good use of technology.

I would like to point out, however, when talking about good uses, that what has been lost in this whole debate is the consumer, the end user. We have the minister and his mates supposedly putting out a strategic review, which is going to be unbiased, despite the fact that he is already talking as if he has decided about the form of technology he is going to use. What cannot be lost in this debate is the importance of what this delivers to the consumer. I do not care how many times the minister and those opposite need to see the dilapidated state of the copper network, but what I would like to have as a key takeaway is that you cannot do these applications of the future without focusing on the upload. You will not be capable of getting the bandwidth that is necessary if you pick and choose people who will receive fibre to the home as opposed to copper on the last mile.

This bill is all about future-proofing ourselves and about being forward looking. I would challenge anyone to vote against the amendment that the shadow minister has put up today, because it would speak volumes of those who do.