Last week I hosted a national broadband network forum with Andrew Leigh, the federal member for Fraser, and the shadow minister for communications, Jason Clare, at the Uniting Church auditorium in Gungahlin. It was a well-attended event with around 40 people coming out on a fresh Canberra night to talk about the NBN rollout and connectivity issues at their homes and, in many cases, their home businesses. The majority of people lived in Gungahlin, but a number of Belconnen residents also attended.
When there was a change in federal government in 2013 significant changes were made to the NBN rollout plan. Under Labor, 93 per cent of homes and businesses would have got a super-fast version of the NBN using fibre optic cable to the home delivering speeds of up to one gigabyte per second, or 100 megabytes per second, download speed. Under the former communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, now Australia’s Prime Minister, the coalition chose to run a fibre-to-the-node scheme that promised speeds of just 25 megabytes per second. Fibre to the node sees fibre optic cables run along the street and terminate at a big box. The old copper network is then used to deliver service on what is known as the last mile to the house.
Unfortunately, even this second rate NBN is rolling out slower than Mr Turnbull promised, and it is more expensive than he promised. The cost of the coalition’s NBN started out at $29.5 billion in April 2013. It blew out to $41 billion in December 2013, increased again to $42 billion in August 2014 and it was recently announced that it will now cost up to $56 billion. It will be slower and more expensive and it will not be future proof. It bodes very poorly for his prime ministership.
What became very clear at our forum is that Gungahlin on the whole has a great advantage over the majority of Canberra, but even within Gungahlin there are streets and parts of suburbs that have been left behind. In the suburb of Casey approximately two-thirds of the suburb has an NBN connection while the remainder await confirmation of when they will be connected.
The inconsistency of service, particularly throughout Canberra, means those preferring or requiring fast and reliable broadband will gravitate to those areas where it can be accessed. This places those without access or the means to move to an area with coverage at a real disadvantage, whether they be students researching for assessments, small businesses requiring large and fast downloads, or those incapacitated by age or disability hoping to access online consultations with health specialists, for example, from other cities or even from other countries.
Attendees at the forum spoke of their frustration with the company’s rolling out of this essential infrastructure. Three residents of Dunlop in Belconnen spoke of their inability to access even ADSL through their existing copper network. One gentleman said he was told all the ports were occupied for their street and he was only able to connect fortuitously because he noticed someone moving from their street was having their line switched off. His friend a few houses away still relies on mobile broadband, at great expense, as he requires the internet at home for work.
Residents of Casey expressed enormous frustration that they are yet to be told when they can expect to be connected, when their neighbours right across the road are able to access the full benefits of the NBN. It remains unclear when Nicholls, an island of non-NBN connectivity in the region, will get NBN and, more importantly, whether it is fibre to the home or fibre to the node. NBN is not confirming these details with Nicholls. I know this is even more frustrating for our fellow residents across the Barton Highway and some of the staggeringly slow speeds for many residents in Tuggeranong.
The national broadband network is one of the biggest, most important infrastructure projects in Australia’s history. Internet access is no longer a luxury; it is a utility. It is vital to the way we will provide health services, deliver world-class education and build a strong and growing economy. My federal Labor colleagues and I and this government will continue to advocate that Canberrans are given timely access to quality, fast broadband.