Public Interest Debate - Regional Mobile and Digital Connectivity
Mr ROY BUTLER (Barwon) (17:00): I move:
That this House:
- Recognises that mobile and digital connectivity in regional, rural and remote New South Wales is grossly inadequate.
- Recognises that without adequate mobile and digital connectivity the safety of people in the bush is compromised, our
businesses suffer and our children's educational opportunities are limited.
- Notes that to date the Deputy Premier has not responded to correspondence from October last year regarding the issue.
"Hello? Hello? Can you hear me? Hang on, I'm just in a dip. I'm just going up a hill. Can you get me?" Beep, beep, beep—call failed.
"Yeah, hang on a minute. Hang on. Just going to where I can pick up a bit more service. You there, mate?" Call failed.
That may sound comical, but imagine you have just had a car accident. You have broken bones. You are bashed up. You are pretty sure your mate is not going to make it. To get phone reception you have to run five kilometres in the dark for help. You are able to get one or two bars, enough to make a call.
In a nearby community the first responders are notified. They kit up, ready to head out. Before they set off they have to make doubly sure that they know where they are going because as soon as they leave the town limits they have no ability to communicate back to base—nothing. They cannot check Google Maps. They cannot call anyone.
One person in my electorate does not have to imagine this situation because it happened to that person. Tragically, that person's friend did not make it. This was last year.
Out west our phone reception is worse than it is in some Third World countries. When a bloke driving a bullock cart on a dirt road in rural India can cruise by me on the phone and people in the middle of towns in my electorate cannot get service, you know there has been a monumental stuff-up in Australia.
Why are we in this place talking about mobile phone blackspots? Because the NSW Nationals made the election pledge to rid New South Wales of mobile phone blackspots. I commend the Deputy Premier for taking on such an ambitious task, one that I note the State and Federal governments have not been able to fix in the 40 years we have had mobile phones in Australia. It is a task that he is seemingly willing to tackle alone. I wrote to the Deputy Premier in October raising the issue of connectivity and the fact that across my electorate there are over 100 blackspots that have been identified by the community through emails to me. Despite the big dollars announced by the Government to fix this problem the Barwon electorate is yet to see any real benefits. I am still waiting for my response from the
A number of people across my electorate have said to me, "Roy, it's all part of their plan to keep us in the dark on what's happening in Government and to hold us back."
Unreliable and non-existent mobile coverage impacts negatively on almost every aspect of people's lives in the bush: business and academic success or failure, the tourist economy we are so desperately trying to bring into our small towns, connectivity for the agricultural industry that will drive modernisation and provide for compliance, and day-to-day transactions with government. People living in the city will never know the frustration of being told you have to go online to access a government service after you have struggled to get enough mobile service just to make a call. Scanning a QR code is not a possibility when the service that is supposed to support it is coming from a mobile phone booster.
Recently Tilpa, a town in Barwon, went without mobile or internet service for 11 days straight. Can you imagine the uproar if Sydney, Armidale, Tamworth or Dubbo were without service for 11 days? Think about what relies on this service: phone, internet and EFTPOS machines. For 11 days the telecommunication provider allowed that remote town, which relies on the Royal Flying Doctor Service for medical care in emergencies, to be without service. They could not call. The provider said, "It's not a priority. It will be fixed when we're next in the area."
The problem is that the Government is beholden to the telcos. If it were serious about addressing the problem of mobile blackspots, it would fix the power imbalance. I have written to the Federal Government about the issue. It said that ultimately it is a commercial decision for the mobile network operators as to whether to invest in mobile infrastructure in the area. It comes down to a commercial decision for my communities—how disappointing!
The Government throws millions of taxpayer dollars at telcos to build phone towers, but only when they can make a buck. How is that an acceptable situation? We are lucky—and I say that a little bit sarcastically—to have phone towers and equipment in some towns, but it is not making huge dollars for telcos and they neglect their responsibility to maintain the infrastructure.
After I did a call-out to Barwon for them to tell me their issues with mobile connectivity, the Louth Chamber of Commerce forwarded me a rather frustrating chain of emails between its president and Telstra. Louth was really fortunate to have second-hand 3G mobile equipment installed by a few years back, which gave them a bit of service. They humbly asked Telstra to have a look at whether there could be a 4G upgrade, because the service had been patchy at best. Telstra did a review and said, "We'll give you some new batteries."
The issue persisted and locals could not make calls or send text messages. The Louth race day rolled around and members can imagine how quickly the network capacity was maxed out—no calling and no EFTPOS at the pub. The Louth Chamber of Commerce are a tenacious bunch and went back to Telstra again. They were told their 3G was okay; they just needed to get the NBN so that they could use the internet to call people over wi-fi.
The email tennis continued and a month later I received an email from Telstra saying, "With 5G rollout proceeding at pace, we have decided it no longer makes sense, from commercial or customer experience perspectives, to maintain the legacy 3G service offering." So what happens to Louth? Will the New South Wales Government leave it to the telcos to sort out a solution based on what is best for their bottom line?
I will finish by telling members about the town of Tooraweenah, a fantastic village not far from where I live. Fed up with waiting for the Government to act and given the run-around by Telstra, local businesses,
community groups and residents dug deep into their own pockets to raise $10,000 for a small cell tower so that they can have reception in town. The tower was originally going to be installed by the end of October, then January. Now it will be March—perhaps. Is this the type of action my communities have to take, using their own money to pay for essential infrastructure?
I look forward to hearing from the Government about its record investment in mobile blackspots. Perhaps members opposite could talk to their colleague in the other place who finds himself in my electorate frequently about just how much investment is needed in Barwon to bring us up to par with the city. I commend the public interest debate to the House.
Member for Dubbo
Mr DUGALD SAUNDERS (Dubbo) (17:07): I thank the member for Barwon for the opportunity to speak on this important issue, although I do feel that the motion is fairly pretentious. I move:
That the motion be amended by omitting all words after "That this House" and inserting instead:
- Recognises that mobile and digital connectivity in regional, rural and remote New South Wales is improving thanks to the record investment by the Berejiklian-Barilaro Government, including the $50 million Connectivity Country Communities Fund and the $400 million Regional Digital Connectivity Program.
- Recognises that without adequate mobile and digital connectivity the safety of people in the bush is compromised, our businesses suffer, and our children's educational opportunities are limited.
- Commends the NSW Nationals and Liberals for taking a leadership role in fighting for regional and remote communities to have access to better connectivity services to build a safer stronger regional New South Wales.
I am very familiar with this issue. I live, work and travel through regional and rural New South Wales on most days that I am not here. The Deputy Premier has advised me that the member for Barwon has written to him about this issue. His detailed response outlines the leadership role that the New South Wales Government is taking in delivering digital connectivity to the people of regional New South Wales. The member for Barwon, as he outlined, should really have directed that letter to the Federal Government as it is traditionally a Federal issue. But the point is that the New South Wales Government is taking control of the issue and making a difference.
In the letter the Deputy Premier has compiled the latest facts and figures to update you on exactly how the New South Wales Government is leading the charge. Of course, digital connectivity is hugely important for my electorate. My electorate of Dubbo will be a big winner through the New South Wales Government's $400 million digital connectivity program, but so will the electorate of the member for Barwon. It will benefit from a huge investment, not necessarily thanks to him but thanks to the work that the New South Wales Nationals are doing to support regional New South Wales. No doubt the member for Barwon will claim credit for it, as he does with a few other things, but The Nats will be and have been supporting Barwon long before Mr Butler's time and will continue to support Barwon when he is gone in just a couple of years.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! The member for Dubbo has the call.
Mr DUGALD SAUNDERS: As I mentioned, it is important to note that digital connectivity is primarily a Federal issue.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! I ask the member for Dubbo to direct his comments through the Chair. He will be heard in silence.
Mr DUGALD SAUNDERS: I have been; I am talking about the member for Barwon. It is important to note that the digital connectivity program that I am talking about is a Federal issue, but New South Wales is
leading the way. The Government is committed to ensuring that families and businesses across regional New South Wales have better access to mobile, internet and digital services than ever before. We are all about building a safer and stronger regional New South Wales. The Government understands that it is important and that it leads into our future in which parents and children, individuals, schools and educational facilities, service providers, industry and government all need to be able to connect with each other. We must do that to maintain health and wellbeing, to remain competitive, and to grow and prosper.
Only a week ago I was with the education Minister in Dubbo, rolling out the very first schools in the pilot of the Rural Access Gap Program, which will result in complete upgrades to SMART boards in every regional
school's classroom and internet speeds that are five times faster. That is a massive improvement and it is changing education right now. That is part of why the commitment has been made to go beyond a normal State Government's responsibility by investing in connectivity under the $400 million Regional Digital Connectivity Program, which builds on the $50 million I mentioned earlier in the Connecting Country Communities Fund.
In this debate we are talking about things that are making a difference and a program that is focused on mobile coverage to eliminate mobile blackspots where people live and work. It is not 100 per cent done now but the work is being done and that is the point. The Opposition cannot say the Government is not doing anything when in fact every day stuff is being done. The Government is also focused on the Gig State project to bring metro-level internet speeds to regional New South Wales through investment in network infrastructure, including data hubs that benefit the Dubbo electorate and many others.
Another program, the Farms of the Future program, is showcasing the benefits and opportunities that agricultural technology can deliver for drought resilience, improved productivity and enhanced water security.
Pilot programs are happening now in Blayney and Coonamble, and Narromine, which is in the Dubbo electorate. The Government understands and knows what is needed in western New South Wales. The Government wants to ensure that it gets it right. We want to make sure we deliver on the commitment and make sure that we have robust digital infrastructure. We want to ensure that we have fit-for-purpose digital activities and that people in regional locations can remain safe and healthy. The Government is forging ahead with that work. I assure members that implementation of the program is an absolute priority and the Government will continue to deliver.
Member for Swansea
Ms YASMIN CATLEY (Swansea) (17:12:3): On behalf of the Labor Opposition I support this public interest debate. I thank the member for Barwon for bringing such an important issue to the attention of the House. It is 2021—a time when all kinds of amazing things are possible. Gene editing tools can make detailed changes to an organism's DNA. Mind-controlled prosthetics have been developed for people who have lost a limb. Even Elon Musk reckons he is building a rocket ship that will carry people to Mars. If you can dream it, you can do it— unless, of course, you are in New South Wales. Today large parts of regional and rural New South Wales remain without access to mobile and digital connectivity because of the New South Wales Government. The importance of digital communication in the twenty-first century cannot be overstated. It increases efficiency and effectiveness across every sector of the economy. It enhances the quality of life and we all know it has the ability to save lives.
Yet the Government is leaving communities behind by allowing the lack of connectivity to disadvantage them in a whole range of ways. The lack of connectivity inhibits health services. We have seen that in the recent rural and health review. It limits education opportunity. It prevents economic participation. It stops regional businesses from accessing new markets and technologies and it affects social inclusion and access to services. We often hear the Minister for Regional New South Wales, Industry and Trade say that mobile and digital connectivity is the sole domain of the Commonwealth. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The Minister often says that telecommunications is not the Government's responsibility. Before the last election the Minister was boasting about his $400 million digital connectivity fund, but I have bad news for the member for Dubbo. The Government's own budget papers state that whilst that amount was mentioned in the 2019 budget, when it allocated $90 million to the fund, it has now halved to just over $200 million. Guess how much the Government spent out of that $90 million last year? It was just over $1 million. I will table that for the Government members. Now we know why there is such a divide. Now we know the answer to the question asked by the member for Barwon.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! The member for Dubbo will come to order. The member for Kiama will come to order. I call the member for Kiama to order for the second time.
Ms YASMIN CATLEY: In addition, the New South Wales Government maintains a range of infrastructure that could support the roll out of greatly superior digital communications in rural and regional
New South Wales. The State has the Government Radio Network, the NSW Telco Authority and fibre in the ground in rural and regional New South Wales. We definitely know that the Government will argue that it is not its job to fix connectivity but, quite frankly, that is all BS. The Government has the necessary infrastructure at its fingertips.
It beggars belief that the Deputy Premier has not responded to the correspondence on that matter from the member for Barwon—although now we know why. This is the same Deputy Premier who neglected to adequately inform bushfire-affected councils of $177 million in bushfire recovery grants. I have a media release from the Deputy Premier that refers to a $50 million Connecting Country Communities Fund. I again advise the member for Dubbo that his electorate will not get any of that either because it was quite a rort-worthy occasion, according to the Deputy Premier. The funds were supposed to deliver faster and more reliable wireless broadband internet to regional communities.
But the Deputy Premier's own press release, which I will also table, says that of 11 areas in New South Wales to benefit from the fund, seven were in his own electorate. Again, I suspect that that is another reason why the member for Barwon has not heard from the Deputy Premier. With the Government's mobile blackspot program and free wi-fi program between Hornsby and Wyong, we have seen that where there is a will, there is a way; we know it can happen. But unfortunately the lazy Government lacks the will to even respond to this very simple piece of correspondence. The only way we will see more digital connectivity in rural and regional areas is when we see fewer Nats in rural and regional electorates.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER: I remind members in the Chamber of social distancing.
Member for Lismore
Ms JANELLE SAFFIN (Lismore) (17:16): I commend the member for Barwon for the motion. The issue needs the attention of this Parliament because the Deputy Premier is certainly not giving it the attention it
deserves. We know there is a clear and present digital divide between the city and the country. Locals in my electorate of Lismore contact me about woefully low levels of mobile phone and internet coverage. Even when I drive around my electorate my mobile phone drops out. Other members who live in the country know that well. Even on the Tweed Valley Way where one would think there would be mobile phone reception, there is not, as it drops out. Mobile and internet coverage are what people in the city take for granted if they can afford it. Ensuring decent digital connectivity is core business of government, not of the commercial sector.
The core business of government is to ensure that we have essential services and this is an essential service. We should not have to even have this debate because our communities should be connected. We should know what the plan is and where it will be rolled out to see if it is fair, equitable and transparent. A lot of the programs being rolled out by the New South Wales Government, particularly those that have the fingerprints of the Deputy Premier on them, lack transparency and clarity. Members are not even told about them. As a country MP, I must speak out on the digital divide. When I talk to local small business owners and industry representatives, they all complain about the inferior connectivity. It puts them at a great disadvantage. The Government should be doing everything it can to help small businesses in my electorate recover from COVID, the bushfires, the drought and the floods. That would need a communication superhighway, but, as former NSW Farmers president Mal Peters said, we have a goat track.
I will defend the Deputy Premier on one point. In the media release he put out on 24 February 2019 he said that $400 million would be allocated for faster mobile and internet coverage in regional New South Wales. I am not sure how that came down to $50 million but he said $400 million. He said that historically it was a Federal responsibility, but the urgent need for internet and mobile connectivity for regional New South Wales meant that the Government would step in to combat the issue. That is great and my community welcomes that, but we want to see him and The Nationals really combat the issue. If you step up and take on a responsibility, you have to ensure that it happens. I could spend 15 hours talking about the Federal Government and the abomination of what it did to the NBN, but I am here as a State member so I will let that one go for now.
Recent investments have benefited the radio network in the electorate of Lismore, but it was not until the terrible fires that I found out that the network did not provide coverage to many places. That created terrible situations during the fighting of those fires. I have been told that the towers will be in places like Cawongla and Sunnyside, but I want to see the detail with a proper briefing provided. Local members and their constituents deserve that, but we do not always get the civility of someone who comes with the history of the Country Party from the Deputy Premier. Somehow when the word "Country" was removed from the party name and they became The Nationals, that civility went as well. It is time the Deputy Premier brought it back in.
This public interest debate is a good start, but regional communities really need to be connected well. Digital poverty must be factored into every policy decision, as we saw with COVID and schools. Health is one
area where the digital divide can mean life or death, so for that reason we have to ensure that we have good connections. How many times can the Deputy Premier announce this? We have heard announcement after announcement, but we want to see runs on the board. We want to see connectivity. All members must work together to ensure that the people of rural and regional New South Wales have strong digital connectivity for jobs, business, health and safety.
Member for Albury
Mr JUSTIN CLANCY (Albury) (17:22): I welcome the opportunity to speak on this public interest debate. I thank the member for Barwon for bringing the debate before the House, and I thank the member for
Dubbo for the important amendments proposed. All regional members understand the challenges that face their communities when it comes to digital connectivity, like mobile blackspots. I have met business operators in Rand who have two internet connections due to the frequency of connection failures. I speak to people like Jenny McFarlane from Bidgeemia, who told me of the troubles she and her husband have had with digital connectivity and educating their grandchildren during the COVID crisis. The irony was not lost on me when I tried to engage with Telstra about a mobile blackspot, and when they called me I was heading up to a mobile blackspot in Tumbarumba.
My community appreciates the challenges and recognises the importance of regional and rural connectivity. I firmly believe that to move forward into the twenty-first century, the digital road is just as important
as the physical road to connect our communities. I see opportunity as well. It was fantastic to be at Old Coree, Rice Research Australia's property west of Jerilderie, and to see where the internet can take us—for example, digital sensors on irrigation channels to get the right volume of water into the channels to water land. The opportunity there is significant and it will help advance our regional communities in the twenty-first century.
I appreciate fully that the important area of telecommunications is in the domain of the Commonwealth, and I know that the member for Barwon appreciates that. In that sense, New South Wales welcomes the funding that the Commonwealth makes in that area, but continues to urge our Commonwealth colleagues to continue that investment to enable regional communities. The New South Wales Government recognised that in its last term of government. When New South Wales got $50 million for blackspots from the $100 million rollout of funding across the nation, the New South Wales Government matched that with a further $25 million. That is where the New South Wales Government has recognised the importance of investments in digital connectivity and has stepped up to be alongside the Commonwealth.
The $39 million from the Connecting Country Communities Fund to build 140 mobile phone towers was touched on by the member for Dubbo. I know that there are already two new towers funded by the New South Wales Government servicing 394 square kilometres at a cost of $730,000 in the Albury electorate. In the Murray electorate, six new towers have been built for 291 households across 2,329 square kilometres at a cost of $1.83 million. Those towers that are operating are funded by the New South Wales Government.
As a local member, I strongly believe in collaboration. I acknowledge people like Dan Brear from NSW Farmers, Edwina Hayes of RDA Murray, and Bridgett Leopold, who is the executive officer for Riverina
and Murray Joint Organisation. We have been having conversations about how we can work together in our community to improve literacy when it comes to telecommunications and how we can work together to improve telecommunications in our electorate. I find it absolutely fascinating; I love the opportunity that we could have with collocation. We have TransGrid going across our electorates. I am sure the member for Wagga Wagga has had conversations with TransGrid about the opportunity for collocation, what we can do to utilise existing infrastructure, the fact that optic fibre is already running through there and it has backhaul, that the opportunity is there and leveraging that.
The Government also has the schools rollout. The member for Dubbo has already spoken about the $365 million going to schools. My conversations with the Minister for Education and the Minister for Customer
Service, whom I thank for talking with me, are about how we can leverage off that infrastructure and how we can improve it. There is fast internet going into our schools. How can the community benefit from that as well? The member for Barwon has written two letters: a letter to the State Government and a letter to the Federal Government. It is much more about writing letters; it is about working with your community on how we can collaborate and enable infrastructure.
Member for Orange
Mr PHILIP DONATO (Orange) (17:28): I contribute to the debate on the motion moved by my colleague the member for Barwon. As regional members, we all know the issues affecting communications in our
areas. That is a key element in fostering the growth of rural and regional New South Wales. Connectivity to the outside world is essential in providing confidence for businesses to establish in the country. Blackspot-free communication is needed to unlock the economic potential of regional New South Wales. Decentralisation is also stifled in the absence of reliable, blackspot-free communications. People are looking to escape the rat race of the city, and in this COVID world where employers are providing remote work opportunities, reliable communications—or lack thereof—can be a decision-maker or decision breaker. It is obvious that phone connectivity is conducive to safety, as has been alluded to by the member for Barwon. Education is the foundation of a first world society and is, in this day and age, reliant upon reliable digital communications. Without that reliability, the disparity broadens in the development of our children, and their future study and work opportunities.
The effectiveness of police and emergency services is often reliant upon inter-agency communications, and communications with the broader public. Police often use mobile phone towers to triangulate a mobile phone, which is a tool often relied upon in search and rescue operations, or to locate missing persons, often in a potentially life-critical stage of an operation or investigation. When this information is unavailable through lack of connectivity it can mean the difference between life and death. There are also obvious social benefits of telephone and internet connectivity as people interact and remain connected. In the absence of reliable connectivity, people with mental health may suffer. Isolation is exacerbated by an absence of the availability and reliability of communications, particularly in our more remote areas. It is no coincidence that in the remote areas, both physical and virtual isolation are conducive to poor mental health and, in some cases, even suicide.
In February 2018 the Deputy Premier said that his government had an ongoing commitment to eliminate blackspots across the State. The election rolled around and he said his plan was to see regional New South Wales blackspot-free for telephone calls and data. The Deputy Premier said that over the next four years his government would make regional New South Wales mobile blackspot-free and digitally connected across every corner of the State through the Government's $400 million Regional Digital Connectivity program. That is a bold statement, but for the people of rural and regional New South Wales it is a welcome one. I do not want to be a cynic because it is my hope that this Government pulls this off before its promised 2023 deadline; however, remember that a blackspot-free New South Wales does not mean only in electorates held by the National Party. People everywhere in rural and regional New South Wales are of equal value and deserve to have access to the rest of the world.
In October last year I asked the Deputy Premier, the Minister for Regional New South Wales, what his time line was on achieving the Government's commitment of a blackspot-free service across regional New South Wales. It will not surprise members on this side of the House that he did not provide a time line. In his response to my question, the Deputy Premier said that all mobile blackspots in regional New South Wales are given due consideration in the design and delivery of government mobile connectivity investments. Due consideration? I submitted a question on notice and I will quote part of the response from the Deputy Premier that was received on 18 November 2020, only a couple of months ago. He said:
… $400 million through the Regional Digital Connectivity Program, including $100 being delivered through the Gig State project …
The Government has already invested $39 million—
so not even 10 per cent of that $400 million two years into this Parliament is being delivered—
with 120 towers in operation and a further 20 coming soon.
I specifically asked about Barwon, Murray and Orange electorates and the Deputy Premier said that there were 15 new towers across those electorates that represent over 50 per cent of New South Wales. That is fifteen towers for 1,500 families and there are more than 600 mobile blackspots in those three electorates. The Government needs to do more. The Government needs to realise that western New South Wales specifically and regional New South Wales is no different to metropolitan Sydney. We are in need of our fair share. I commend the motion to the House.
Mr ROY BUTLER (Barwon) (17:33): In reply: I thank the member for Dubbo, the member for Swansea, the member for Lismore, the member for Albury and the member for Orange for their contributions.
It is a bit rich for the member for Dubbo to take credit for the hospital at Dubbo when the hospital is the work of the former member for Dubbo, Troy Grant. It is great to hear that we finally got a response to our letter to the Deputy Premier. Perhaps if the member for Dubbo spent more time helping his constituents they would not feel the need to contact me about their mobile phone connectivity. In the 100-plus submissions from people and groups, one of the most startling submissions came from a young lady from Narromine who could not access remote learning at home. She can only get reception in one place in the house. We gave that information also to the Deputy Premier on the member's behalf.
I thank the member for Albury for his more sincere approach in addressing this issue than shown by the member for Dubbo. For the member's information, I cannot count the number of letters and the many meetings with the Federal regional communications Minister.
I agree 100 per cent with the member for Lismore that adequate digital connectivity is the core business of government, not the core business of the corporates— hear, hear!
It is a sad reflection on the Government that in 2021 some people in New South Wales cannot call 000 in an emergency. Eliminating blackspots is not a mechanism that should be deployed to buy votes. It is the difference between a couple in Balranald being able to call an ambulance for their son who has had a farm accident and not being able to call one. It is about the ability of a business to offer EFTPOS transactions and the ability of our kids in the bush to access online learning opportunities.
My colleague the member for Orange is absolutely right: The Deputy Premier's statement that his Government would make regional, rural and remote New South Wales blackspot free and digitally connected across the board is bold but welcome. We have another two years of this Government's term. The Deputy Premier and his Government have two years to deliver on the promise to eliminate every blackspot in the State. Every blackspot eliminated and every community online is a bold commitment, and my communities are watching.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The member for Barwon has moved a motion, to which the member for Dubbo has moved an amendment. The question is that the amendment be agreed to.
The House divided.
Amendment agreed to.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The question is that the motion as amended be agreed to.
The House divided.