AS her Labor colleagues barnstormed regional Queensland this week to generate voter support to try to win marginal seats, one of the party’s rising rural stars Lisa Chesters was out and about in her Bendigo electorate listening to what farmers had to say about the current federal Coalition government’s performance.
And the report card she gathered based on farm visits and conversations at the Elmore Machinery Field Days in regional Victoria was far from flattering.
Primarily in her sights was gathering feedback on the report from the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee’s inquiry into the National Broadband Network which was released last week and made 23 recommendations for reforms, to improve the nation building project’s roll-out; especially in the regions.
“I’m asking people what they think of the committee’s recommendations and a lot of them really like the idea of establishing a rural and regional references committee to look at all of these complaints about the NBN rollout so we can get quick response and quick action,” she said.
“People also want to know why areas have been put on satellite which in the first plan, Labor’s plan, were marked for fixed wireless or fibre to the premises - node/kerb - and is there a way to help users get back onto the fixed wireless roll out?
“The government is so desperate to reach their deadline this is just a quick and dirty rollout and they’ve thrown a whole bunch of places in reginal Victoria into satellite services only and that’s just clogging up the satellite service and network.
“People are also saying they just want to be able to go to one person to get their issues fixed.
“They’re really cranky that the telcos like Telstra are saying ‘it’s not our fault it’s NBN Co’ and NBN Co are saying ‘it’s not our fault go to your telco’ and they’re really frustrated that they’ll spend hours on the phone with the two organisations just blaming each other.
“They’re also saying, ‘This is a federal government program and we’ve all know about these issues for some time and this is the latest report, damning the government on their roll out, so just fix it’.
“This will be one of the big issues for the bush going forward and farming communities and local farming communities are calling on the government to fix their connectivity because it’s a way in which we can rebuild a lot of our small towns and businesses in them and it’s also the future of farming – the innovation goes with it.”
Ms Chesters said many businesses in her region involved in farming, and the local farmers themselves, told her that if they have access to fixed wireless NBN, they could modernise their farms and use connectivity to improve farm practices.
She said that included; monitoring the property to try to stop livestock theft; modernising their irrigation management tools; or tracking stock throughout the property like opening and close gates and other control methods.
“Connectivity is making a difference and improving the productivity of their farms, out of sight,” she said.
“But it’s a different story for people who are stuck on Sky Muster - it’s slow and it’s clunky and it’s very expensive.
“And the farmers are saying, ‘doubling the data is welcome but the costs are astronomical and it drops out all of the time’ so it’s an unreliable service and they don’t know if more data is going to be enough.”
Ms Chesters said the Committee report - from the inquiry that she also participated in - was highly critical of the federal government and NBN Co’s efforts in rolling out the NBN network.
But she said she also supported a number of the report’s recommendations because it really focused on the “urgent attention that’s needed for rural and regional Australia”.
“Out here in the bush we’re not getting the service and support and infrastructure we need from NBN Co,” she said.
“You can tell that the NBN Co and this plan were set up by a merchant banker based in Sydney, because it’s a quick and dirty rollout and it’s about getting their version of the job done, as quick as they can, and trying to make as much money as they can.
“And that means in regional areas we suffer.
“Yes it is more expensive to roll out technology in our part of the world due to distance issues – but like all Australians we deserve fast and reliable internet and to end the digital divide.”
Regional Communications Minister Fiona Nash has rejected the criticism saying a key recommendation of the Labor-dominated Joint Standing Committee was to deliver more data to Sky Muster users which the government did this week.
“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.
But Ms Chesters said in her talks at the field day this week NBN was “high on the list” of priorities for farmers who just wanted to see the government take action to address the digital service inequities.
“Because of the nature of central Victoria, you have farmers saying ‘I’ve got horrible internet service because I’m relying on Sky Muster’ and I know, from talking to manufacturing businesses, they’ve been told they should be on Sky Muster because there’s no other option for them,” she said.
“But I’m saying is, a manufacturer that’s only 4.5kms from Bendigo, why can’t you roll out fibre to the kerb to that business so they get decent access to the internet and give that extra data to the farmers so they can also have decent internet access.”