Lateline with Emma Alberici > Mitch Fifield, Liberal Senator for Victoria

CONTACT SENATOR FIFIELD

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Electorate Office
42 Florence Street
MENTONE VIC 3194

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19-October-2017

 

Lateline with Emma Alberici

ABC Studio Canberra
18 September 2017

9:30pm

 

Text Box: Subject: NBN, ABC

E & OE

 

Alberici:

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. 

Fifield:

Good to be with you Emma.

Alberici:

The Telecommunications Ombudsman says the soaring number of complaints against the NBN is a cause for concern. Are you concerned? 

Fifield:

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. 

Alberici:

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%.

Fifield:

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. 

Alberici:

But 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.

Fifield:

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 cost.

Alberici:

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 upgrade post-2020.

Fifield:

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. 

Alberici:

By 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. 

Fifield:

The New Zealand approach is fundamentally different to ours.  And it’s very difficult to compare it. 

Alberici:

Well you just tried to compare us to the United States and the UK.

Fifield:

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.

Alberici:

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?

Fifield:

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 future. 

Alberici:

When?

Fifield:

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.

Alberici:

You mentioned the competitive neutrality review, that's already within the purview of the Productivity Commission. Why aren't they conducting it? 

Fifield:

The 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 broadcasters.

Alberici:

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?

Fifield:

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.

Alberici:

Will part of this be a look at ABC’s charter? And any potential for review or change? 

Fifield:

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.

Alberici:

Are you concerned that the ABC is acting outside its charter?

Fifield:

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.

Alberici:

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.

Fifield:

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.

Alberici:

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 privacy act?

Fifield:

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 officers. 

Alberici:

You 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.

Fifield:

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. 

Alberici:

Mitch Fifield thanks for your time.

Fifield:

Thanks Emma

 

 [ends]