01 April 2020



SUBJECTS: NBN performance; Labor’s call for a targeted NBN rebate; Western Sydney and COVID-19.

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Welcome back to the program. Let’s go live now to the Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland who joins us to talk about the issue of the NBN. Obviously, so many people are now working from home. How is the system stacking up?

MICHELLE ROWLAND MP, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Kieran, this is a function – telco networks are a function – of how peak capacity and peak demand is actually managed. It's interesting to note some of the trends in Italy for example, and other parts of the world, and Australia has the instance where between 9am and 5pm you actually have probably about half the capacity or half a demand on networks than you have at what they call the peak at around 9pm.

Now all that means is that telco networks know how to manage peak capacity. Operators have been doing this for a long time and I think it's important to put in context that whilst we do have more people working from home and using that capacity, you have school children who are doing distance learning now and people keeping in touch with their family and friends, the NBN is by and large a fixed line network that doesn't suffer from some of the technical limitations of mobile networks, and it was pleasing to see that a fortnight ago NBNCo announced a 40% increase in capacity for its retail service providers.

So, I think that you can actually contrast this with voice calls and it's voice calls that have been by and large on the decline. But that's where myself and other constituents have actually experienced problems.  Part of this is because mobile networks, of course suffer from that congestion differently. We've had a lot more people who don't have landlines anymore and rely on their mobile phones. They're using their mobile devices for everything from keeping in touch with family and friends to doing learning, to doing work and they're staying on the line for longer. We also had instances where people were on hold for longer periods of time and tying up switches. So things like the Coronavirus and Health Direct Hotline, Centrelink, for example, so it's interesting that some of those problems that people don't usually associate with networks anymore, and in particular plain old voice, has actually been the area with some of those particular difficulties being experienced.

GILBERT: Yeah, okay. Well on that front, and you touched on it in that answer, the students at home, what's the percentage of students who actually have internet access these days?

ROWLAND: Well, we know from the ABS data Kieran that around three percent of Australian households with children 15 and under at home actually do not have the internet and that equates to up to 55,000 households. So it's a relatively small cohort but it is an important cohort when you consider the amount of distance learning that's now being done. We've got a unique moment in time, I believe, we can actually identify who these people are because schools are actually collecting the data and identifying not only these people but also some of the reasons for that lack of internet at home.

So, along with my colleague Tanya Plibersek, in the education portfolio, we believe there’s a really important opportunity here for NBNCo to step in, to come up with a simple system by which that cohort can receive free internet so they're able to do the online studies from home, and we think that this also feeds into the larger narrative, which is we want to see beyond say a six or twelve month period when that access is provided, we want to see more young people being able to access the internet at home and to be able to do that not only for school, but for other functionality, be it dealing with government departments or for any other purposes.

GILBERT: Yeah, well, it's quite pivotal at the moment with this distance learning that we're all engaging in with our kids Michelle, finally, I'm wondering how your area – you’re a member in Western Sydney. It's obviously a very busy part of the country, one of the biggest economic centres in the country. What's the response been like and are people listening to the message?

ROWLAND: I think people are, Kieran. It’s a curious time to be a Member of Parliament where all you know as part of your role is to connect with people, to interact with them, and have relationships. That's still going on, but we're doing it differently.  Myself and a lot of my colleagues see our role now is to get those messages out to people, and we need to get it out in different ways.  The diversity of this part of Australia here in Western Sydney is enormous. It's about getting messages out in multiple languages. It's about getting it out on platforms that aren't necessarily in mainstream media, whether that’s through WhatsApp groups or other groups, getting people to try and send out this messaging to people.

Equally you have cohorts where with, in particular elderly people or people who don't have access to the internet at home or aren't on social media, we're going back to the plain old letter. We’re sending out letters to people, letting them know that we are here, we are here to help, we are open and reaching out in that way. I must say the incoming response has been incredibly positive for people whilst they're isolated. There is still some really good work that's being done in our community from people who are reaching out to help. We see ourselves as a conduit to be able to connect those people. So really being a Member of Parliament means you have to be able to be adaptable and adjust and this pandemic and the way in which myself as a local member interacts with my community, it certainly is a learning experience.

But I think, we're all in this. I have children as you mentioned who are studying at home. I've got an elderly father who's into his third week of isolation so I'm helping him out and doing my job at the same time. I think it's the same right around Australia, people who are multitasking in a way they never thought they'd have to.

GILBERT: Yeah, that's certainly right. It's something I don't think we could have imagined even a month or two ago. Thank you, Michelle Rowland. I appreciate time your time, talk to you soon.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.