Ministers for the Department of Communications and the Arts

CommsDay Melbourne Congress 2016

5 October 2016

Thank you very much for asking me to be here, and I must say, when I was given the position as Minister for Regional Communications I was absolutely delighted.  

In my first speech to Parliament eleven years ago, I quoted  the former Nationals leader, John Anderson, Deputy Prime Minister at the time, who in 1999 said that Australia was at risk of becoming two nations. He said:  

“The sense of alienation, of being left behind, of no longer being recognised and respected for the contribution to the nation being made, is deep and palpable in much of rural and regional Australia today.”  

Too often, the people of rural and regional Australia have felt left behind and have been forced to contemplate what this means for the future of their communities. And as somebody who lives in a regional community, I feel that very strongly.  

As Australia has progressed further into the digital age, we’ve made significant progress when it comes to connecting rural and regional Australians and ensuring that they have access to world-class communications  infrastructure. But we still have some way to go.

Being appointed as Minister for Regional Communications in February, has allowed me to help to build strong and stable regional communities, so that our children and our grandchildren either want to stay in or come back to those communities.  

And good telecommunications is a significant part of that.  

I believe that connected communities are strong and stable communities – socially and economically.  

Under the Coalition Government, Australia is well on its way to becoming a truly connected nation. A country where you can participate in the digital economy, whether you’re in Cargo or Camberwell, Darlinghurst or Deniliquin.

It’s a far cry from when the Coalition came to power in 2013.  

At that time only 51,000 people were connected to the National Broadband Network, despite some 6.5 billion dollars having been spent on the project.  

No cost-benefit analysis of the project had been undertaken, despite the rollout being the most significant infrastructure project in our nation’s history.  

The previous government had made no effort to determine which areas needed high-speed broadband the most. Not a single dollar had been spent by the previous government on improving mobile coverage in regional Australia.  

How things have changed.  

Today, the NBN is available to more than three million homes and businesses across Australia and more than one million premises have an active service.  

It’s expected that by the middle of next year, half the Australian population will have access to the NBN. And the network is on track for completion by 2020, at which time nine out of ten users in the fixed line footprint will be able to access to download speeds of fifty megabits or more.  

The fact that the Coalition Government has managed to turn this project around in just three years is a direct result of our decision to shift to a multi-technology mix approach and I give credit to Malcolm Turnbull for a lot of that change.  

It’s a decision that was vindicated by the Vertigan Panel’s Cost-Benefit Analysis, which found that a multi technology mix was the most cost-effective strategy for Australia.  

It’s a decision supported by the people I’ve spoken to across the country, who continue to tell me that they don't mind what their internet  is delivered by, so long as it arrives soon and is fast, reliable and affordable.

And it’s a decision that’s allowing us to deliver the network eight years sooner and at a cost of thirty billion less to taxpayers.

The regional rollout of the NBN is well ahead of the metropolitan rollout, I’m delighted to see, with approximately forty two per  cent of the 3.6 million premises in regional Australia now able to order a service.

By the middle of 2017 more than sixty per cent of homes and businesses in regional Australia will be able to order an nbn service.  

Some seventy per cent of premises in regional Australia will be served by the fixed line rollout and this rollout is progressing well.  

But to date, the NBN’s progress in regional Australia has really been driven by the advanced state of the rollout outside the fixed line footprint.  

The nbn company has specifically developed its world leading fixed wireless and satellite services to deliver high speed broadband to regional and remote communities.  

Some 430,000 regional and rural Australian homes are already able to connect to fixed wireless broadband. That's sixty four per cent of the fixed wireless rollout completed already. The fixed wireless rollout is  expected to be largely completed by 2018, covering some 671,000 regional homes  and businesses. Excuse me that I keep smiling, but it’s actually really good news for people in regional Australia.  

More than 400,000 eligible premises have been able to order satellite services since April this year.  

nbn’s Sky Muster satellite service will be a game-changer for people in regional and remote locations, many of whom have never previously had access to reliable fast broadband.  

And while I accept that there are some concerns at the moment with the rollout, I am overwhelmingly getting positive feedback by people out  in the regions who now have capability that they didn’t have before.  

nbn will launch its second satellite very shortly. The second satellite will add extra robustness and capacity to the satellite service.

While the launch of a satellite is very exciting, as Regional Communications Minister, what’s more exciting is what regional Australians can do once they have access to good quality communications services.  

The rapid deployment of the NBN is life-changing for the people of rural and regional Australia, who are already unlocking the many benefits of high-speed broadband.  

Businesses in the country are now able to compete on par with their city counterparts.  

Families are able to access quality government services without leaving their homes.

And the NBN is creating new opportunities in the delivery of health services, and entertainment on-demand.  

The Sky Muster satellite is also extending the delivery of  education services, as well as improving the productivity of agricultural and regional businesses. And as previous Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Education, I have been delighted to see this quantum leap in the delivery of education services.  

The Government, nbn co and the education sector have worked together to design a service to help distance education students.  

Distance education students can access an additional satellite connection at their home, with higher monthly download limits (an additional fifty gigabytes per student, per month, for up to three students per premise) and a priority service connection.  

Schools in the Sky Muster footprint may also be able to receive extra data allowances for each installation.  

Digital and smart technologies are also opening up significant opportunities for the agriculture sector, and will allow farmers, my husband and I, to manage their farms more productively, sustainably and with less risk.  

For example, farmers will be able to use smart technology to review data on soil moisture and nutrients, rainfall data, expected weather patterns, market information and world price information. They can control irrigation systems from their lounge room and download YouTube videos in their sheds to fix their tractors. Livestock producers will be able to evaluate data on breeds, pastures and feed to get the best results.  

With commodity markets becoming more competitive, it is crucial that we harness technology to continue to improve our agricultural productivity in rural and regional Australia.  

Technology is constantly improving and becoming more accessible. It’s an exciting time to be a rural, regional or remote Australian.  

Of course, to be able to take advantage of these many opportunities, farmers need reliable internet access, and mobile phone coverage. And this is where the Mobile Black Spot Program is also important.  

Improved connectivity, in the form of the NBN or mobile coverage, offers great new opportunities in rural health, many industries including agriculture and business, and for country people to stay connected with family and friends.  

While rolling out mobile telecommunications infrastructure is a commercial decision for the market, the Coalition Government aims to boost mobile phone coverage in regional and remote communities.  

That’s why we’re investing $220 million in the Mobile Black Spot Program.  

The program, being delivered in three rounds, has the twin objectives of improving coverage and competition in regional Australia.  

During round one of the program, we invested $100 million for 499 new and upgraded mobile base stations, delivering 65,000 square kilometres of new handheld coverage, including to 26,000 new homes and businesses.

For every dollar the Commonwealth invested in the program, we generated an additional $2.80 in co-contributions from state governments, local councils, businesses and of course, the mobile carriers themselves.  

As of 28 September this year, a total of sixty nine round one  base stations across Australia have been completed and are fully operational. Almost two hundred additional base stations will become operational during the next twelve months.

Information provided by communities about mobile black spots in their areas was used to build a national black spot database, which is being used to address more black spot areas under round two.  

Round two will see improved mobile coverage delivered to additional regional and remote parts of the country, with a further sixty million committed by the Government.  

As part of round three of the program, the Government has announced a further sixty million committed to the Mobile Black Spot Program, and we will be targeting priority areas.

Round three funding, for three years commencing on the first of July 2017, is expected that an approach to market and a competitive assessment process will be undertaken.  

I welcome the ANAO’s audit report into the Department of Communications and the Arts’ administration of round one of the Mobile Black Spot Program, which was tabled in Parliament on the first of September.  

The ANAO found that the key elements of a competitive merit-based program were established, and that these elements were implemented in accordance with the program guidelines.  

The Government is implementing the three key recommendations which aim to further improve the administration of the program, specifically:

  • establishing minimum thresholds for assessment purposes;
  • implementing a more detailed assessment methodology; and
  • implementing a performance measurement and evaluation framework.

In regards to the ANAO’s findings on new coverage, the Government has always said that the Mobile Black Spot Program has dual purposes  – to improve both coverage and competition in regional Australia.  

Of the 429 Telstra base stations and seventy Vodafone base stations to be built, every single one will deliver a range of benefits for regional Australians, including in many cases, providing regional consumers with a choice of mobile provider for the first time.

Coverage in many areas has also been improved markedly. Anyone in the country will tell you that the difference between having one service bar and four service bars is huge.  

As we improve telecommunications infrastructure in regional areas, we also need to ensure that consumer protections remain relevant and up-to-date.  

That’s why we’ve asked the Productivity Commission (PC) to undertake an inquiry into the future requirements of the Universal Service Obligation (USO).  

The USO ensures that all people in Australia, wherever they live, have reasonable access to a “standard telephone service” and payphones.  

The Government and carriers, via the Telecommunications Industry Levy, together contribute around $270 million every year towards the USO.  

A key point of contention when discussing the USO relates to the declining use of fixed line telephones by Australian consumers.

With the rollout of the NBN, Australia is seeing a reduced demand for fixed-line voice only services and increased demand for data across all technologies.  

There is also an increase in the demand for mobile services and the use of smartphone technologies.

The 2015 Regional Telecommunications Review concluded that many of Australia’s current consumer safeguards as they relate to the standard telephony service are increasingly irrelevant. It found that within the next  few years, the majority of consumers, including those in regional Australia, will not be using voice calls over the existing copper network, but will be using VOIP over the NBN, mobiles and other applications.

In responding to that 2015 Review, the Government agreed there are arguments that the current consumer safeguard framework, including the USO, is increasingly outdated given the evolution of the telecommunications market and the rollout of the NBN.  

The impact of the NBN also cannot be understated in the context of the USO. In this regard, some argue that Government funding of the USO in regional and remote areas at the same time as investing in NBN satellite and fixed wireless solutions, is duplication.

The Productivity Commission’s inquiry into the USO is now well underway.  

The primary policy question being addressed by the PC’s inquiry is to what extent, in the evolving telecommunications market, Government policies may be required to support universal access to a minimum level of retail telecommunications services.  

As part of the Productivity Commission’s inquiry, an Issues Paper was released in June this year for public comment.

Fifty eight public submissions to the Issues Paper were received, and it’s expected that the PC will deliver a draft report in December this year and its final report by the end of April next year, and I very much I look forward to that report being received.  

While it is premature to determine the appropriate model for new regulatory and funding arrangements, adjustments to the current regime need to be investigated, given changes to available broadband technologies and consumer expectations.  

The Government will also consult on reform options for the broader consumer safeguards framework, including what future retail-level  safeguards should look like, and how these are best structured and funded.  

So ladies and gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure to update you today on the Government’s regional telecommunications initiatives.  

We recognise the vital importance of communications to people living, working and travelling in regional and remote Australia.  

And I’m proud to say that under this Government, there is more investment going into regional communications infrastructure now than at any other time in Australian history.

It’s incredible to think that in just four years from now, each and every Australian – no matter where they live – will have access to high-speed broadband.  

Through the provision of world-class telecommunications  infrastructure, we are closing the digital divide and ensuring that our rural, regional and remote communities are strong, connected and able to take advantage of the many opportunities of the digital age.  

Thank you.

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