Lateline with Emma Alberici
ABC Studio Canberra
18 September 2017
E & OE
It's been controversial since its
inception. Now a growing number of users of the NBN are
unhappy with their service. In the last financial
year, more than 27,000 reports were lodged with the Ombudsman, and
that number is expected to rise as the rollout
continues. From January to June this year, the number of
complaints quadrupled. Most were about slow data speeds across the
network. Mitch Fifield is the Communications
Minister. He joined me earlier from Canberra. Mitch Fifield,
many thanks for your company.
Good to be with you Emma.
The Telecommunications Ombudsman says the
soaring number of complaints against the NBN is a cause for concern.
Are you concerned?
Well we want to have as many happy customers
on the NBN as we possibly can. And I
would never want to diminish the experience that an individual or a business
has that isn’t all that it should be.
But it's important to put the TIO
report in context. What we're talking about are
about 1% of people who are connected to the NBN who have
made complaints to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman. The
overwhelming majority of people who are on the NBN are having a good
experience. But obviously we want
to continually work to improve the experience that people have.
For the first time growth in the number of
complaints has overtaken the growth in your rollout. Your connections are up 120% but your
complaints are up 160%.
Well, they're broadly in line. But
what we're seeing is an exponential growth in the rollout of
the National Broadband Network.
Something of the order of 40,000 premises are hooked up to the
NBN each and every week. And when you
have a rollout of this magnitude, you will have a percentage of
people who don't have the experience that we would hope that they
would. And just to put this in
perspective, we're essentially trying to do, with the NBN in seven
years what it took the PMG and Telecom the best part of 70 years to
do. And that is to rollout a nationwide network and to connect every
Australian to it. It's a vast venture, but the good news Emma is its
on track. It's on budget. It will be done and dusted by 2020. Which
is a good six to eight years sooner than would have been the case under the
approach of our predecessors.
by the time the rollout is compete in 2020 your technology would be out of date
and would need to be upgraded. In
hindsight do you ever stop to think perhaps you should have continued with the
all fibre rollout.
If we had continued with Labor's approach the
NBN would not be finished until 2026 or 2028. And as I do
community forums around the nation, in areas that don't have the NBN,
I can tell you Emma they're not interested in waiting until 2026 or
2028. They want the NBN now and they'll have it at the latest by
2020. Also if we continued with the approach of our predecessors, it
would have cost an extra $30 billion. And what we're doing is no
different to what is done in Europe.
No different to what is done in the United States. Where
they pursue a multi-technology mix. They use the technology that
makes sense in a given area to see it deployed quickly and at lowest
But your own NBN Co Chief Network Engineer,
Peter Ryan, has admitted back in July that the company has begun planning
upgrades to the service post it’s 2020 completion date. He says the company is well aware that you
won’t be able to meet the needs of all Australians into
the future. Has there been a provision for what that will cost to
No technology and no network is ever set in
stone. There will always be the need for
upgrades with any telecommunications network.
So NBN quite prudently are planning for those upgrades. NBN are looking at a rate of return that will
see it able to cover its costs. But also
able to upgrade the network as that’s required. And as I said before, this
is the approach of the rest of the world. You get the technology
for fast broadband to people as soon as you can because you only
really get the full economic and social benefits when the whole
nation has it. You don't want to let the perfect be the enemy of the
good. And there's the capacity to upgrade. And that will happen over time.
2022 80% or so of New Zealanders will be on a full fibre network, they’re in
our neighbourhood. Won’t that give those
close friends of ours over the ditch an economic advantage in
terms of potential productivity gains? They're guaranteeing their
population, or at least 80% of them, double the
speeds that you're guaranteeing.
The New Zealand approach is fundamentally different
to ours. And it’s very difficult to
Well you just tried to compare us to the
United States and the UK.
Well they are pursuing a similar approach
with a multi-technology mix. In the
case of New Zealand, they're incrementally upgrading the
existing network using the incumbent telcos and a mix of private
and public money.
The path that our predecessors set us
upon is a government-owned entity that is building a bespoke network
to replace, effectively, the previous network. Now, you mentioned
that New Zealanders might be ahead of us. Well, the facts to
date show that only about 35% of New Zealanders are switching across
to the new network. In Australia, we're tracking at about 75%. So, they're
different sorts of networks. They’re fundamentally different business models
and approaches. But we will have a
fit for purpose, fast broadband network that will be the envy of the world.
You introduced the ABC amendment bill
today. What we didn’t see is any
reference to the so-called competitive neutrality review. Is that still going to go ahead?
Absolutely. We announced
when we were putting the media reform package through the Parliament that we
will have a competitive neutrality review. And for your
viewers who mightn’t be au fait with that term, it essentially means that we'll
have a look to see if the ABC and SBS use their positions as government
entities to compete in ways which are not reasonable with the commercial broadcasters.
So, we will establish terms of reference. We will appoint a panel to
do that. And we'll have a bit more to say about that in the near
Well, in the near future. We're
drafting the terms of reference. We need to appoint the people to sit
on that panel. But we'll be talking more than a few weeks, but not
more than a few months.
You mentioned the competitive
neutrality review, that's already within the purview of the
Productivity Commission. Why aren't they conducting it?
Productivity Commission if we asked them to do this could. The Productivity Commission have a
competitive neutrality unit to which private sector organisations can make
complaint if they believe that a government entity is misusing its position. So that mechanism is there at the moment for
people to make complaint. But we want to
establish a separate mechanism to look at the broader question of competitive
neutrality as it relates to the public broadcasters and the private
What do you mean broader? Competitive
neutrality is competitive neutrality. Are you suggesting that you
might scope it a bit further and acquiesce to the demands of the
media bosses and look further into our charter and perhaps review that?
I’m not in the acquiescing business
Emma. The PC have a particular job in terms of their
competitive neutrality unit. The PC is an option to commission to do
further work, but on this occasion we're going to set up
a panel to do that.
Will part of this be a look at ABC’s charter?
And any potential for review or change?
Look it could potentially touch on charter issues. It could look at and I think it probably
would look at whether the ABC it acting within its charter. That would be something that would be natural
for this review to do.
Are you concerned that the ABC is acting
outside its charter?
The ABC obviously tell me every day that they always
act within their charter. Commercial media organisations tell
me every second day that the ABC doesn’t always act within its charter. It's
one of the reasons why we want to have this competitive neutrality
review. So that the public broadcasters can put their view forward
and the commercial broadcasters can put theirs forward. And we can have these issues ventilated.
The bill that you have put up today is that
likely to pass the Senate given that you have already had pretty firm messages
from Nick Xenophon, the Greens, Labor, Derryn Hinch and
Jackie Lambie that they won't support it under any circumstance.
Well this is a familiar record Emma. We heard before the ABCC Bill passed
that it would never pass. Yet it did. We
heard before the Registered Organisations Bill that it wouldn’t pass. It
did. We heard that education reform
wouldn't get through the Senate. But it did. We heard that corrupting
benefits legislation wouldn't get through the Senate. But it did. We
heard media reform wouldn't get through the Senate. But it did. The
more I am told and the more my colleagues are told something
won't pass, the more determined we are to see it happen. Our
track record so far is pretty good.
And just finally Mitch Fifield why is it
important to reveal ABC salaries of specific individuals when already the ABC
tells the public on its website how much people are earning within certain
bands of salaries. Why naming them individually? And won’t that potentially be a breach of the
We’re following the example of the BBC, that
fairly recently went down this path of having greater disclosure
of the salaries of on-air talent and other senior people in
the organisation. We think it's reasonable and appropriate that
when you have an organisation that receives more than $1 billion a
year of taxpayers' money, and when you have people who hold
significant positions of trust, which senior ABC staff do, that we
have a similar level of transparency as we do for Members of
Parliament, ministers, judges, senior public servants and military
mentioned the BBC but the top earners there earn in excess, well the top earner
there earns £3.4 million. I can
guarantee you, and you know it yourself, that no one here earns anything like
that, not even our Managing Director.
Well, it's good that we have more
modest remuneration for people in our public broadcaster, but we
think it's important that there's transparency when taxpayer
dollars are involved.
Fifield thanks for your time.