A NEW report into the NBN’s roll-out that has ignited a political war of words between leading rural factions in Canberra.
But one rural MP is determined to try to stay out of the political cross-fire to advocate for improvements in critical communication services to regional Australians.
The Joint Standing Committee inquiry was established last year comprising upper and lower house members and inquired into areas like the inequality of digital service provision in regional areas, including via satellite services, and handed down 23 recommendations last week.
One of the leading suggestions called for the establishment of a dedicated regional and remote reference group to assess the merits of business decisions associated with the NBN’s roll-out, with direct impacts on people living in non-metropolitan communities.
“Business decisions that fundamentally change the NBN experience for the end user in regional and remote communities should be referred to the reference group for consideration and analysis as to whether the decision will result in the NBN Co not meeting its responsibilities as outlined in the Statement of Expectations,” it said.
Another recommendation said the Australian government should ask NBN Co to establish a rural and regional reference group for the company to consult on Sky Muster services and changes to policy and rollout plans.
But Labor Shadow Regional Communications Minister Stephen Jones drew the ire of his counterpart Fiona Nash when he highlighted an alleged split within the government due to Victorian Nationals MP Andrew Broad participating in the inquiry but refusing to sign a dissenting report comprising government members and the Chair and NSW rural Liberal MP Sussan Ley.
“The Joint Committee issued a detailed plan to address what it found were systemic issues of faults, failed connections, reliability and chronic speed issues occurring across the network,” Mr Jones said.
“Coalition MP Andrew Broad accepts that the government has got many aspects of the NBN rollout wrong and that they need to act to address the very real issues being felt in regional communities.
“Billions have being spent but many customers told the committee their service had gone backwards - that’s simply not good enough.
“Regional Communications Minister Fiona Nash cannot continue to ignore this crisis.
“The government now has 23 serious recommendations to improve customer service, technology and transparency.
“Constituents in Mr Broad’s electorate of Mallee are expressing the same frustration as in every other regional MPs office - they are fed up.”
But Senator Nash said Labor and Stephen Jones were “masters of misleading”.
She said a key recommendation of the Labor-dominated Joint Standing Committee was to deliver more data to Sky Muster users, “which we did four days ago”.
“Today, most companies have plans of 150 gigabytes of peak data a month - under Labor, Sky Muster users would have received only 35 gigabytes of peak data a month,” she said.
Senator Nash said Mr Broad “simply didn't want to sign a dissenting report for a committee he hadn't much been able to attend”.
“Mr Broad also says the Coalition has done a great job in having NBN deliver much more data to Sky Muster users,” she said.
Senator Nash said she secured a commitment from retailers to deliver the extra data for very little extra cost earlier this year.
“Sky Muster users asked us to break the drought – well the rain has begun,” she said.
“For the first time, customers will be able to purchase plans of more than 100 gigabytes a month of peak data.
“A plan of 100 gigabytes a month of data at peak times and another 150 off-peak is expected to cost around $120 a month.
"This is a great first step and there's more on the way, including plans created for businesses.”
In comments provided by the minister’s office, Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australians spokesperson Kristy Sparrow commended Minister Nash and NBN Co for listening.
“This is a very positive step,” Ms Sparrow said.
Speaking to Fairfax Agricultural Media, Mr Broad – a former Victorian Farmers Federation President – said the NBN started under the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd government and was inherited by the Coalition when elected in 2013 and “we’ve been trying to clean it up ever since”.
He said he felt the committee process had been used for political gain but should have been bipartisan with the politics “parked to one side” and would have been “disingenuous” of him to sign the dissenting report, given his limited participation.
But he stressed the final report contained some positive recommendations for reforms that were consistent with the experiences of regional users which he’d now like to see adopted, like implementing a dedicated regional and remote reference group that he said was a “wise” initiative.
“I took the view that if I wanted to hear complaints about the NBN I could do that sitting in my front office,” he said.
“But the report contains some useful suggestions to improve the NBN’s roll-out and it’s like building a road – you may need to do some patchwork along the way.”
National Farmers Federation President Fiona Simson said her group supported the creation of an NBN regional and remote reference group and had “led the way in this regard” as a founding member of the Regional, Rural and Remote Communications Coalition.
“In many ways we have created this reference group already out of necessity – any formal recognition would be welcome,” she said.
“We would be really interested in discussing with the government how this might be possible.”
Ms Simson said consumer transparency “dominates” the report’s recommendations and greater transparency was something that her group had been calling for, for some time.
“It is important that consumers understand the products they have access to and how to use them - they must also be able to address issues as they occur,” she said.
“We would support separate plans for business and residential Sky Muster customers – we are at pains to constantly point out that farmers are running businesses, in some case multi-million dollar businesses, and that the services they receive should reflect this.
“A greater business focus on rural and remote services would be welcome.”
Ms Simson said one of the challenges within the rollout so far has been nbn balancing its role as a wholesaler while still having direct customer interaction.
She said measures that clarify this relationship and prevent consumers “bouncing” between retailer and wholesaler while also being made aware of their rights and any recourse, “is really important”.
“Although we do note that much of this will be addressed by measures in the Telecommunications Reform Package currently being considered by parliament,” she said.