FIVEaa Mornings with Leon Byner > Mitch Fifield, Liberal Senator for Victoria

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13-October-2016

10.00 am AEDST
13 October 2016

E & OE

BYNER:

The nbn fibre to the node system, that is, the node is a little point outside your house, there’s some distance between it and your place. The problem with that is that at the current set up, if there is a power failure, the node doesn’t work. Now, Peter Gurney, from nbn told me, on air, ‘get a mobile as a back-up’. But of course, if there’s a power outage, that may fail too. And I said, ‘what then, Peter?’ He said, well use UHF. But of course UHF is only good if you’re talking to your neighbours because what’s happened is that the comms have migrated to the GRN network. Now, providers have suggested that you get an emergency pack, but I’ve rung a few people that are going to sell nbn and they’ve never heard of that. We have a system that’s piggy backing on the internet. We have had a reliable copper wire service, and I think I told you yesterday that in the United Kingdom it runs alongside the fibres as a back-up. So, we’ve decided not to do that. Okay, so, my point is this: I can’t believe that any Member of Parliament, I don’t care where they’re from, government or opposition, would actually roll out something knowingly, that doesn’t work during a blackout. Let’s talk to the Federal Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield. Now, Mitch, I know that you’ve inherited this situation, but were you aware of any of this?

FIFIELD:

Leon, yes, I’ve always been aware, during my time as Minister for Communications, that the NBN is being rolled out in a way that will see a different operating environment. And I think, if we could just go back half a step. I’ve been listening to recordings of your program over the last few days. And I think there’s a bit of a misapprehension that at the moment on the copper network, for people who haven’t moved to the nbn, that in all cases, in the event of the blackout, people would be able to pick up their fixed line phone and make a call.

The reality is that we have very different technology plugging into the copper network at the moment. For people on the copper network today, large numbers of people have cordless phones. In many, many cases, those cordless phones won’t work on the copper network during a blackout. There are many other devices which are currently plugged into the network which won’t work during a blackout. What I’m talking about is the existing copper network. So, the way that we’re using communication devices has changed. And I wouldn’t want anyone to be thinking that they, even today, can automatically rely on making a voice call on the old copper network.

BYNER:

Alright, but the old copper network is going to be obsolete, so my point is this: you surely, are not going to roll out a system which is useless during a blackout?

FIFIELD:

Well, again, I think we have to look at the way that we’re using devices. We have about 94 per cent of Australians have smart phones. There are about five and a half million Australians who don’t have a fixed line phone…

BYNER:

Are you aware that you don’t have to have a state-wide shut down to have mobile towers go down with local blackouts?

FIFIELD:

In an emergency environment, whether there be storms or fire or other events, there’s no absolute guarantee for any form of communications. Whether it be mobile phone. Whether it be fixed line services. And during the South Australia blackout, there were tens of thousands of premises in South Australia, on the copper network, whose services weren’t operational. So, there’s no fool proof guarantee with any communications system in an emergency situation.

BYNER:

Again, I point out a very simple proposition. If you migrate to nbn, you will not have a landline to anywhere if there is a power failure, point one. Point two, get a mobile, but if there is a failure of that mobile, and can I just tell you something else, you’re fully aware of what Professor Bill Caelli has been saying.

And he made the very obvious point, that if there is an emergency and you’ve got mobile, your tower is going to be so busy with calls, you may find a situation where even if there is power to the tower, you can’t use that phone. Now, the next option nbn said was, get a UHF, well, as I think you’ll realise, that’s pretty ridiculous. So, I just want to ask you, what do you expect people to do, who’ve got medical alarms, they’ve got, maybe, monitored issues with their health or they’ve got security alarms. None of these will work with the nbn system if the batteries or the power goes down. So, what are we going to do?

FIFIELD:

Just on the first point of the UHF. I think Peter Gurney was seeking to make the point that in regional areas there are many people who do have UHF because they mightn’t necessarily have mobile coverage. Because it’s something that’s a safety feature, you know, if you’re operating on a large property you need to stay connected. So, I don’t think he was advocating that that is something for people in metropolitan areas. He was just making the observation that there are some people in regional areas who have UHF.

BYNER:

Alright. Have you have you heard about the emergency pack that he mentioned?

FIFIELD:

It’s common for emergency services organisations, for the police, for the Country Fire Authority, and also for nbn to simply make the recommendation that it’s good practise to have an emergency pack. nbn is merely reflecting, conveying, the advice of the emergency services, which is that it’s…

BYNER:

Mitch, with greatest respect to you, sir, this was in the context of “What do you do when you can’t use the nbn?” The emergency pack, I doubt, is going to give you access to triple 000, or anybody else, or loved ones. So, let’s cut to the chase here. What do you expect people to do if they don’t have power, they’ve got an nbn system, what are they supposed to do?

FIFIELD:

Sure. Just on the emergency pack, and I’ve looked at the NBN material. It’s essentially replicating the advice of the emergency services. Which is, it’s good to have a battery powered radio transistor. It’s good to have a torch. It’s good to have a charged mobile. And it’s good to have some battery back-up for your mobile. That really was the point that he was making.

You touched on medical alarms and this is a very important area. nbn has recognised that this is critically important. So in 2014 nbn launched a Medical Alarm Register. They’re working closely with the major monitored medical alarm companies. They’re registering. Individuals are self-registering. There are over 158,000 people who are currently registered. And in parallel with that, nbn have a Medical Alarm Subsidy Scheme to help people transition to the nbn. Essentially, in a lot of cases, what they’ll be doing is helping people to have a device that is connected to 3G. So nbn…

BYNER:

This is called, this is called Permaconn. Who’ll pay for that?

FIFIELD:

Well, that’s the purpose of the Medical Alarm Subsidy Scheme is to cover the costs of that migration.

BYNER:

Alright, let me, that’s good, because we didn’t know about that…

FIFIELD:

…and Leon, I think this is important. If I can give you and your listeners the number for nbn’s Medical Alarm Register. Because nbn want to know who are on medical alarms so that they can be carefully transitioned across to the nbn and still have the services they want. And that number is 1800 227 300.

BYNER:

1800 227 300. Now what about those people with other monitored alarms – security for example – or people who want to be able, or those, for example, the care alerts, with the pendant, they need the phone line. Do they have to register as well?

FIFIELD:

We’re encouraging everyone who has a medical alarm to register with nbn so they can seek advice as to how to transition to the nbn. nbn is also working closely with other organisations. There are monitored emergency alarms as well. There are lift emergency phones. And nbn is working closely with relevant organisations to ensure that those can transition.

BYNER:

So, basically, you’ve got the medical people covered through a 3G network which will be over and above whatever you get in normal circumstances. What happens now, let’s say nbn is going to come down your street tomorrow, and they knock at your door, and you’ve heard these things broadcast on Double A or you’ve watched Today Tonight or whatever, or you’re aware that there’s some issues, and you say I don’t want nbn. Where are you left?

FIFIELD:

Well one of the bases of the nbn is that every Australian premise will have access to the nbn. So the nbn is coming, that…

BYNER:

So you have no choice?

FIFIELD:

It’s been a decision of successive governments that the nbn will be delivered to everyone’s household. But I think something also important for your listeners Leon. From when nbn comes to your place and you have the opportunity to hook up to it, you have 18 months before you will have the old system switched off. So that’s 18 months for people to work out what are the arrangements. So, we want people, particularly who have medical alarms to register now. So that they can transition. But even when the nbn comes to their street, even when they’re hooked up, they’ll still have 18 months to ensure that they have arrangements in place.

BYNER:

Some of them have fibre-to-the-node which is outside their premises all together, on public property, that’s where the node is. Some of them have a box connected to their house which can have a backup battery.

I asked nbn about this the other day, Peter Gurney, and I asked him what the price was, if you’re offered it to the node and you say well I want a box like that person I saw on television. He didn’t know what the price was but it is going to be somewhat expensive. What determines who gets the node and who gets the box?

FIFIELD:

Well, the fibre to the premise was the approach of the previous government. They essentially took a theological approach to the nbn. Had to be fibre. It had to be everywhere. Regardless of the cost and regardless of how long it took. We’ve taken, I guess what I call, a technology agnostic approach. Which is, our mandate to nbn is roll it out as quickly as you can and at lowest cost. That’s going to see the nbn completed six to eight years sooner than would have been the case under our predecessors and at $30 billion less cost.

What that means is that there are about two million premises in Australia that will get fibre to the premise. We’ve got about six million premises that will get fibre to the node. And there’s fixed wireless and satellite and also using HFC Pay TV cable in other areas. What determines what you will get is the technology that makes sense in your area. So, where you’ve got Telstra HFC cable in some of the capital cities, then that’s how a lot of people will get it. In other places it’ll be fibre to the node. So it’s really based on what will see it rolled out fastest and at lowest cost.

BYNER:

Why did you decide not to battery backup the node system, as has been suggested by Professor Kelly, which would solve a lot of this unreliability business?

FIFIELD:

nbn, according to their mandate, look at the range of roll out options. The range of technology options. And how they’ll configure things. They took the view that they were recognising the way it is that people actually use communications today. Recognising what it is that people actually have plugged into their premises and that even on the existing copper network, there are so many people who have devices plugged in that they communicate through which wouldn’t operate in a power blackout situation –even under the existing copper network. So they’re really designing it to reflect the way that people use communication devices.

But importantly recognising that vulnerable people who have medical alarms, who are often on fixed low incomes, that there needed to be a solution for them. Which has been done. Also recognising that something of the order of only about 16 per cent of Australians actually use a fixed line phone every day.

BYNER:

So basically, let me summarise this and if I’m wrong you correct me. You’ve got the medical people covered through a 3G network which will cost but you’ll subsidise them. But if you’re an ordinary person with a monitored alarm, you’re going to have to go at your own expense and get a permacon system, same as those who are under medical duress, if you want a base to monitor your premises. That’s going to be the case isn’t it?

FIFIELD:

What nbn is doing, in terms of their medical alarm subsidy scheme, it’s focused on those devices that meet the Australian Standard. And the Australian Standards requirement for those devices to have a backup of power. So that’s what nbn is using as its benchmark.

BYNER:

So cutting to the chase, I’m just making the point, that for the ordinary person who’s got monitored security, you’ll have to make your own arrangements when you get the nbn?

FIFIELD:

For people with monitored alarms, nbn want them to register with the Medical Alarm Register.

BYNER:

Hang on, we talked about the medical. If you’re an ordinary person, you don’t have a medical issue, but you’ve got a monitored alarm, where do you stand?

FIFIELD:

If you’ve got a different type of alarm device, it’s important for people in that situation to talk to their service provider. Because there are a range of products in that category. To talk to their service provider to see how that will work in the nbn environment.

It may well be the case that some of the companies who are offering these products need to modify those products to be compatible with the nbn. But that’s something that’s important for people who have those devices to talk to their service providers about.

BYNER:

Alright, Mitch Fifield thanks for coming on today. That’s the Communications Minister Mitch Fifield covering the territory that we’ve talked about.

[ends]