Ministers for the Department of Communications and the Arts

Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield

Minister for Communications

Minister for the Arts

Manager of Government Business in the Senate

Interview With Neil Mitchell 3AW

7 March 2017

MITCHELL:

The NBN. We’ve heard from you, from the customers, tearing your hair out.  We heard from an NBN spokesman. Then there was the telecommunications industry spokesman. Then was the Chief Executive of NBN on Friday who said he is just as frustrated as the rest of us, and I said what cage do I rattle? Where do I go? And he said well ultimately the Minister. And he is on the line now in our Canberra studio the Minister for Communications, Senator Mitch Fifield good morning.

FIFIELD:

Good morning Neil.

MITCHELL:

Could we establish this first, do you agree there are big problems here with this rollout?

FIFIELD:

Look there are challenges. NBN and the retailers want to continually improve the customer experience, but the overall story of the NBN Neil, is a good one.

MITCHELL:

Not for the customers it’s not at the moment. Look you must be getting some of the complaints we are getting, a pile of them. What’s challenging about it?

FIFIELD:

Well it is the largest infrastructure project in Australian history. NBN is going to be interacting with almost every home and business in Australia over a four or five year period. So it is a massive undertaking. I did say we started in a different place, and that is, when we came into office in 2013, Neil this was essentially a failed project.  Despite six and half billion dollars having being spent by Labor over about four of five years there were only 51,000 people connected. Contractors had downed tools in four states. It was a failed project.

MITCHELL:

Ok let's forget history, let's look at the future and the present. People are being screwed around now. We’re not talking about the difficulty of rolling it out. We are talking about the difficulty of connection, and the interfering, and the confusing, and making it more difficult the lives of average Australians. Do you accept that’s happening?

FIFIELD:

Look I know there is a degree of frustration. During the time that I have been Minister I have received probably about 3500 letters about the NBN. Now most of those have been people saying why can't we have the NBN yesterday? That has been the overwhelming trend of that correspondence.  But sure, as I move around the community, as I talk to people, I hear the individual experiences of people.

MITCHELL:

What are their problems?  Even the head of the NBN says he sympathises with them, he agrees it's a mess.

FIFIELD:

Well I want the head of NBN to sympathise with people.  I don't want to...

MITCHELL:

Well it's up to you to fix it.

FIFIELD:

It is a shared venture. It's me. It's the NBN. It’s the retailers. What we want to do is improve the customer experience. Now what the statistics show is that for every 10,000 people who are connected to the NBN there are about 9 complaints for every 10,000 people. So overall…

MITCHELL:

Nine in 10,000 well gee they are all contacting me.

FIFIELD:

9 in 10,000 so overall the customer experience is pretty good. When NBN measures overall satisfaction with customers it is about seven out of ten. But that does not diminish the individual experiences of people. If it's you, if it's me, if it is anyone - it is incredibly frustrating when you are dealing with a utility and things aren't going the way that they should.

MITCHELL:

Now why do I have to fiddle with my phone? The number of people whose phones have been disconnecting, are unreliable. They have had to buy new phones.  Had to move to other rooms. Have to be rewired. They are sitting their happily in their little house and everything is going alright and then suddenly along comes your NBN and they have big problems and financial problems. They have got to pay for things. Why?

FIFIELD:

Well as I say, we're connecting the NBN ultimately to about twelve million premises.  Already NBN is available to four million premises, And that is about one third of the country. There are about 1.8 million customers thus far. Now most of those people have had a pretty good experience. A pretty seamless experience.  But there are things we can do better. Which is why I sat down at the end of last year with the board of NBN with Ziggy Switkowski who is the Chair, who has a long history in the telco industry, and said to them that we have got to have a relentless focus on the customer experience.  So as a result of that NBN has embarked upon a project with the retailers to work through the whole process, end to end, to see what the pain points are and how they can be solved.

MITCHELL:

But Mr Morrow, Bill Morrow told me that is not working.  He is having trouble with the telcos as much as we are.

FIFIELD:

Well this is a project which is ongoing and we are getting some good results. I mean one of the things I have asked the NBN to have a particular focus on is getting their work at someone's premises right, the first time. So over the last six months it has gone from being 83% right the first time to 89% right the first time. But we want to do better. And the retailers want to do better as well. So we are working closely with them. We are working well. I don't take off the table anything that we could look at to further improve that. But it is important to put this in perspective. I don't want to diminish, in any way, the individual experience that people have had where it hasn’t been what it should be. But overall the experience of people is a good one.

MITCHELL:

We have some calls. Go ahead please Yes Debbie?

CALLER:

Hi Neil and thank you very much for taking my call. Minister it is all very well, standing here listening to you try and be complacent about the NBN. You're not the one in the seat. Now you can go back to statistics all you like, but when you are an actual person like a small business owner who has been forced to move to the NBN. I have received disconnection notices because I didn't want to go, because others around me have had terrible trouble with reception, internet drop outs all that sort of thing. I am a home based business. I cannot, cannot have my phone disconnected, cannot have my internet disconnected because I receive work from the internet via mail. There’s a lovely $475 - it is $475 or $495 fee just for the privilege of being pushed to the NBN. What's your response? You are put in by the people to serve the people. Not destroy their businesses.

FIFIELD:

Thanks Debbie. The way the NBN has been designed is that it will be the wholesale network for the nation. And what that means is that ultimately, everyone will have to transfer off the existing network onto the NBN.

CALLER:

Where do you get off being big brother and telling people that put your backside in your seat as a politician what they should do?

FIFIELD:

Well this is what the Parliament under the previous government legislated, that there would be a national broadband network. And there’s an 18 month window for people to migrate to the new system, to choose their retail service provider.

MITCHELL:

But if you don’t migrate, you’re snookered. You don’t even have a phone. No phone, no landlines.

FIFIELD:

People do need to migrate. And we realise that people want to take the time to work out what’s the right retailer for them. What’s the right plan. What’s the right package to purchase. So there’s an 18 month window for that to happen.

MITCHELL:

And if not, I don’t have a landline.

FIFIELD:

Well this is the whole basis of the National Broadband Network as established under the previous government. Now we’ve sought to put it in place much, much quicker and at much less cost than our predecessors. The approach we’re taking, which we call the multi technology mix, where NBN has the mandate to use the technology that makes sense in an area, to see it rolled out fastest and at lowest cost. That will see the NBN rolled out six to eight years sooner than would’ve been the case under Labor. And importantly, Neil, at 30 billion dollars less cost.

MITCHELL:

I’m sitting in my little house somewhere in Melbourne, and I’ve got a landline along come the NBN and they change it, what do I have to do to keep my landline?

FIFIELD:

Well to keep your landline, during that 18 month window, you need to make contact with a retail service provider; there is something in the order of 50 retail service providers

MITCHELL:

How do I find out which is the best one, I shop around the 50?

FIFIELD:

Well you shop around the 50. In metropolitan areas there are about 5 major retail service providers. The ones we know are Telstra, Optus, TPG.

MITCHELL:

What’s all this going to cost me?

FIFIELD:

You talk to the individual retail service provider and there could be a plan from $50 a month to $100 a month. It depends what your needs are. We want people to shop around. We want people to pick the one that’s right to them. And if they have a bad experience with a retailer, then they should dump that retailer and go to another one.

MITCHELL:

And the modem is in the front room, and I want the phone in the back room, what do I do?

FIFIELD:

Well you talk to the retail service provider about the situation in your house. How it’s configured. And they’ll advise what it is you need to do.

MITCHELL:

And I go through all this grief, I shop around the 50, organise new phones, organise new wires and everything, how am I any better off with that phone than the one I have today?

FIFIELD:

Well what the NBN does is provides a couple of things. One is obviously the voice service. The other is the broadband service.

MITCHELL:

Am I any better off with the phone I’ve got?

FIFIELD:

Well, the experience will be much the same.

MITCHELL:

So I’ve spent all that money, I’ve run around in circles with 50 retailers and nothing’s improved on the phone.

FIFIELD:

Well you’ve got your phone service…

MITCHELL:

I’ve already got one! And you come along and say I’ve got to get another one.

FIFIELD:

Well Neil, the previous Parliament, the previous government said we’re going to have a National Broadband Network. We came in and brought order to bear where there was chaos. It was an absolutely failed project when we came into office. The scheme is now on budget, on time. The whole nation will have the NBN by 2020. Australians would have been waiting an extra 6-8 years if the previous mob was still in office.

MITCHELL:

We’ll take a break, more from the minister, Senator Fifield in a moment. /

In our Canberra studio Victorian Senator, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield. We’ll take another call, and I’ve got a few more questions. Dave, go ahead please

CALLER:

Yeah, question to the minister: we were in… the company’s still in the power pole and line and communication business. We talk regularly with the Chinese people who manufacture these things, and they started to put in fibre optic cable years ago, and said this is all wrong, its completely wrong, we’re ripping up streets and roads and rail, so they put in wireless towers. Why didn’t we do that? And the second thing is, the most important thing is, I spoke to a contract that’s put in a cable down the Otway range, and he said they put in a 25mm cable or a 16mm optic cable, Telstra always put in a 100mm cable every size they put in, why don’t we do that too?

MITCHELL:

Second one might be a bit technical, Senator?

FIFIELD:

I’ll start with the first one Neil. Thanks Dave. Look you raise a good point. I hate to keep harking back to my predecessor, but Stephen Conroy took a theological approach to the NBN. It had to be fibre. Fibre everywhere. Fibre to every house. And that meant digging up people’s driveways.  Drilling holes in people’s walls.  We said to the NBN “you should be technology agnostic. Use that which will work. Use that which makes sense. Use that will see it rolled out soonest at lowest cost”. And that’s what NBN is doing. In some places, we’re using fixed wireless, in regional areas and urban fringe areas. And others, we’re using the existing HFC pay TV cable, and in others, we’re using fibre to the node and then copper to the last bit. And you raise a good point, you don’t want to be too fixated on any one technology type.

MITCHELL:

And the other question? Too technical?

FIFIELD:

Ah, yep. I’ll take advice on that one Neil. I’ll phone a friend.

MITCHELL:

Fair enough. Bill Morrow made the point that we need a central body, the thing that makes me unsettled is that the being onus is on the customer goes and sorts out their problems. I’ve got a problem with my phone, I’ve gotta go to one of these 50 providers. What about when they have a difficulty they call their Telco, and the Telco says ring NBN, and the NBN says no the Telco will do it and the Telco says go to the industry ombudsman. Why can’t you get them all in a room and belt them over the head, say we want one central point where the customer goes when they’ve got an issue.

FIFIELD:

Rest assured, I mightn’t be doing belting, but I’m doing constant tapping with the various groupings.

MITCHELL:

So we might get that central point?

FIFIELD:

I don’t rule it out. But my only hesitation is that I wouldn’t want there to be a central point, a new layer of bureaucracy that was in effect, a shield for NBN and the retail service providers. I want accountability, I want responsibility, I want the NBN…

MITCHELL:

Well who’s responsible at the moment?

FIFIELD:

The RSPs are responsible, their relationship with the customer is akin to that someone has with their electricity retailer. When someone has an issue. When they have a fault. When they want to book an account. They contact their retail service provider. They don’t contact the generator or the transmission operator. That’s the same relationship. Now if someone wants to know when the NBN is coming to their area. If they want to know why there’s a delay to the NBN coming to their area. If they want to know who the retail service providers are in an area. Then they contact NBN.

If they want to order an NBN service. If they have an account query. If they have a fault. Then they go to their retail service provider. And clearly, there has been some confusion.  Clearly there have been occasions where retailers have been saying go to NBN when they shouldn’t have. But if someone wants to start somewhere, to seek guidance as to what they should do. Then go to NBN. NBN is a good first place of contact. But ultimately, the individual’s relationship will be with their retailer.

MITCHELL:

Terri, go ahead please.

CALLER:

Hi Neil, Minister. I'm an old aged pensioner, right. I come from Stawell, Victoria, and I want to know what's going on. I'm not on internet, I don't intend to be on internet, right, so what happens if I still want my landline?

FIFIELD:

Thanks. Good question. When the NBN comes to your area you will receive something in the mail from NBN saying they're in town. That a connection is available. And you'll have 18 months to choose a retailer.

Now, you might decide to choose the retailer…

MITCHELL:

But she doesn't want to, she doesn't want the internet

CALLER:

I don't want it.

MITCHELL:

Can she opt out?

FIFIELD:

You can't. So if you want a landline service you'll need to contact a retailer. As I say it might be the retailer who you currently have. And there are low-cost packages for people who basically only want a voice connection.

CALLER:

Excuse me, but why should we have to pay that when we're already paying the Telstra... rebate now. Not rebate, just like to have the phone here.

FIFIELD:

That's right and if you're with Telstra, you might choose Telstra to continue to provide your service. And Telstra will have available low-cost packages for people in your circumstance who really only want to use it for the phone.

MITCHELL:

Terri, do you have one of those connections, they're sort of emergency thing that works on the phone line?

CALLER:

No.

MITCHELL:

No? A lot of people do, and are worried about that, Minister. They're worried that they're going to lose it. In fact they are losing it, they've got to re-establish it after the lines have changed. One told me it's costing about $400. That the NBN came along said 'oh no, that's gone, you've now got this'. It's $400 to get it back again.

FIFIELD:

Well, NBN has a Monitored Medical Alarm Register and we encourage everyone with a monitored medical alarm to register. There's about 180,000 people who have.

MITCHELL:

Jeez, it's all on us isn't it? We've got to register, we've got to shop around, we've got to- we're the bloody customer! And they're making us do everything!

FIFIELD:

Neil, the important point with the Medical Alarm Register is we also have a Medical Alarm Subsidy Scheme to help with the costs that people might incur in transitioning. So that's really important for people to register. Because we don't want anyone to be in a circumstance where their monitored alarm isn't working. And secondly there are subsidies available to help with the costs. Because NBN recognises, we recognise, that there can be a cost in that circumstance.

MITCHELL:

What about telephones in lifts?

FIFIELD:

Yes, there's also a lift phone register and a fire alarm register. So, businesses, organisations who own those facilities register and work with NBN to make that transition. But there's a lot of work that's gone in, particularly for lift phones and for fire alarms.

MITCHELL:

And if I, when I get the NBN what internet speed should I expect?

FIFIELD:

Well, we say that across the NBN regardless of technology there'll be up to 25mb per second. On different technologies you can get higher speeds. So for the old HFC pay TV cable, 100mb per second. What the objective is, and the mandate that we've given NBN, is that for the fixed-line network that 90% of people should be getting speeds of 50mb per second.

MITCHELL:

Now, I've been a getting a strong message from people inside the industry that there's no standard training for technicians and there's a problem with reliability, accountability and the message that they're giving to customers. Is this because we're using contractors?

FIFIELD:

Look, there are contractors who are being used. They are trained. But NBN is looking to always enhance that training.

MITCHELL:

Okay, can you guarantee that it's going to get a big smoother than it is now?

FIFIELD:

Neil, I am going to move heaven and earth. I know Bill Morrow and his team are going to move heaven and earth. And there's a great desire amongst the retailers because they want people's business. They want repeat customers. They want people to stay with them. So there's real incentive for the retailers to get their end right. And NBN is a 100% government owned company, so we have an extremely high duty to make sure that this is as painless as it can be.

MITCHELL:

Just one final point from an emailer. 'Service providers are charging customers $300 to install the NBN'. Should they be?

FIFIELD:

Neil, I think that might be in particular developments. For people in brown field sites, you know existing sites, it wouldn't be the case, but I think there is a charge in some new developments.

MITCHELL:

To have it in- to have it connected?

FIFIELD:

That's right Neil.

MITCHELL:

How many will be paying $300?

FIFIELD:

We'll get some more advice for you on that.

MITCHELL:

Have you heard of it happening before?

FIFIELD:

I have, Neil. I know there are circumstances where there is a charge.

MITCHELL:

So where is it? Brown field, green field, where is it?

FIFIELD:

Well, brownfields are the, existing premises. And there shouldn't be a cost for people there. We have new developments, so in those circumstances there can be a cost.

MITCHELL:

So what's a new development, what do you mean?

FIFIELD:

Sorry, a new housing development where there previously wasn't housing.

MITCHELL:

So in what period of time? New housing since when?

FIFIELD:

Well, Neil housing that didn't exist at the inception of NBN.

MITCHELL:

So it's some years ago. So everything build in the, what, four years?

FIFIELD:

Well, it depends when the NBN comes to a particular development, Neil. So if there's been a development two years ago, it probably has existing communications in there. So it's for new developments where the developer says 'we're building it. We need the pipes.  We need the conduits.  That’s the kind of circumstance.

MITCHELL:

Ok, and if there's a power outage with the internet, what happens with the land line?

FIFIELD:

Well with a landline, historically, with the old network, Neil, there's what was called the fortuitous benefit. Where there was power actually along the cables. So if you were plugged directly into the socket analogue, you could still have a call in a blackout. With the NBN that's not the case. But it's important to recognise that even with the old Telstra copper network increasingly people have cordless mobile phones, they would have modems. Those devices need power. So in many, many circumstances, even on the old network, your phone wouldn't have worked in a blackout.

MITCHELL:

Thank you very much for your time.

FIFIELD:

Thank you, Neil.

ENDS

Back to top