SUBJECTS: Labor’s National Broadband Network announcement; Labor’s policy agenda.

LEON DELANEY, HOST: Joining me now, the shadow minister for Communications, Michelle Rowland. Good afternoon. 


DELANEY: Thanks for joining us today. You're promising now to fix up the NBN, essentially delivering what was originally promised bad a decade ago. There have been problems in recent years; Australia's internet speeds have fallen to below the 50th best in the world. What's the problem?

ROWLAND: The problem we have is that high quality broadband is not a nice-to-have - it's an essential piece of 21st century infrastructure. I think that is well understood by most Australians and it's certainly been underscored by the pandemic. Not only during the pandemic, where we were working from home, we were schooling remotely, for example, small businesses needed to do a lot more online, but also coming out of the pandemic as well and thinking about the future. If we want to have a truly digital economy, we need to ensure that we have the right communications infrastructure in place. The listeners will well understand that that has always been in Labor's mind delivered by a fibre NBN. Unfortunately, over the last eight years under the Liberals, they have reduced this to a multi-technology mix with millions of households and small businesses on an inferior copper network. What we've announced today is that we'll expand full fibre access to another 1.5 million homes and businesses by investing $2.4 billion. This will benefit so many Australians who have been stuck in the slow lane when it comes to the internet.

DELANEY: It sort of fulfils the promise made a decade ago, it's actually more than as more like 15 years ago when Kevin Rudd first started talking about fibre to the premises high speed and National Broadband Network. At the time, the proposal was criticised by what is now the government at the time was the government before Kevin Rudd was elected as being unnecessary and extravagant and just a very expensive way of giving people better music downloads and video streaming. The world has changed a great deal since that argument was put forward, hasn't it?

ROWLAND: It certainly has. As we've said all along, the NBN isn't just about the download. It's about the upload. And we were proven absolutely vital on that point. Where you get the upload is on the best available technology and that is fibre. We currently have a situation today where the copper-based fibre to the node can give an average maximum speed of 67 megabits per second and we've got about 200,000 premises on the corporate NBN that can't even get 25 megabits. So, it is a situation where we have too many people not being able to fully participate in the digital economy. Coming out of the pandemic, if we want a future made in Australia, if we want to capitalise on what we can achieve through ensuring that we have net zero emissions by 2050, for example, in other areas of technology, we need to ensure the best quality communications infrastructure and I think your listeners will well understand that.

DELANEY: Some have suggested however, that remaining wedded to a fixed cable, or a fixed terrestrial network might in fact be building in an obsolete system because the wireless technology keeps improving. We're up to 5g now we can only anticipate that will continue to improve. Is there a risk that a terrestrially based network might become redundant?

ROWLAND: Well, let's be clear. 5G, as it develops, will emerge as a competitor to the more inferior quality technologies that are currently being employed under this government. So, the copper network will certainly be more exposed to 5G technology. But let's always remember that nothing is faster than the speed of light - that is what you get over fibre networks, 5G networks enable other forms of technology and other forms of communication to be done far more effectively as well. It stands the test of time. That's why within our region and beyond, for more than a decade now, we've had advanced economies investing in fibre, not in copper. So, Australia has in fact, under the Liberals, gone the other way. I think it just demonstrates that this poor technology choice over eight years ago, really has embedded as you just alluded to us being really languishing at the bottom of the international rankings and it is not good enough. Australians deserve better. 

DELANEY: I can't argue with that. Yes, Australians do deserve better. I'm just worried, though, that the wireless technology will overtake terrestrial. As you say, nothing's faster than the speed of light. That's absolutely true. But the speed of light is exactly the same as the speed of radio waves. It's all EMR. So, you know, ultimately, when the when the wireless technology develops a sufficient capacity to handle the demands placed upon it, surely that will then supersede the terrestrially based networks?

ROWLAND: Well, again, let's be clear, 5G will not be a substitute when it comes to the highest quality of fibre-based networks. It will be more of a competitive threat, and this has been widely acknowledged, where we have inferior copper networks. I think it should also be pointed out that Telstra has only recently claimed that its 5G home broadband service is going to offer average speeds of 378 megabits per second to homes. Again, compare that to what's currently being delivered on fibre the node and the 67 megabits, you can see why copper is an inferior technology and why stand the test of time.

DELANEY: Yeah, absolutely. There's no question on that point. But that's the reason I keep coming back to this is because you're talking about the capabilities of 5G, I'm thinking about what happens when we get to 6G and beyond, it's going, it's only going to keep improving, isn't it?

ROWLAND: Of course, technology will always improve, but they'll be incremental improvements, just as we've had the different Gs develop. Once we get to 6G, as well, again, we'll have improvements in speed and in latency. But again, there is far less exposure for the public investments that we have in the NBN now if you've got a fibre-based network, as opposed to a copper based one.

DELANEY: Okay, now $2.4 billion, I believe is the price tag for rolling this out, and an extra 1.5 million households. That'll still leave some households missing out how many?

ROWLAND: Well, then we've got that it ends up being about 0.6 million. At the end of the day, you still got one and a half million more homes and small businesses, than under the government. We are being ambitious about pushing fibre deep into the regions, we're being ambitious about ensuring that some 660,000 extra premises in the regions benefit from this. By 2025, we're going to have up to one and a half million of the estimated 1.8 million premises actually having access to full fibre. So, it's a significant investment in our future growth potential, carrying with it some 12,000 jobs. Nearly seven in eight premises in the fibre to the node footprint will have fibre access. So a significant improvement on what we've got now.

DELANEY: Indeed, also, today, the Prime Minister has announced that the Government plans a $100 million investment in quantum computing. That's an important field too, isn't it?

ROWLAND: It certainly is. But unfortunately, again, this is coming in the eighth year of this tired government, and it is proposed that a strategy be developed. So basically, the Prime Minister chilling, the Chief Scientist and the smartest people in Australia to go away and devise a strategy. Around the world. and certainly, in our regions, we've got other countries being very advanced in these areas. In the meantime, again, you can see the pattern here. Australia has been left languishing. We've lost so many of our great minds in this area to overseas interest, people who want to pursue this, not doing it in Australia, but actually having to pursue it overseas, which is a great shame. 

DELANEY: Well, I know there's a lot going on overseas, but I was led to believe that some of the world leading research into quantum computing is being done right here in Australia, in Sydney.

ROWLAND: And it needs to be encouraged much more. That just underscores that after eight tired years of this government, if the best they can come up now is developing a strategy and finally acknowledging that this error exists, then we've got a lot of catching up to do. 

DELANEY: Thanks very much for chatting today.