Home Telecoms & NBN Fifield faces grilling by media over NBN users' experience

Communications Minister Mitch Fifield faced a grilling during his halfway NBN rollout media conference yesterday, over the negative experiences that some customers have reported. We provide the full transcript including journalists' questions and answers.

The press conference featured Fifield, Fiona Nash, Minister for Regional Communications, and Peter Ryan, NBN Co’s chief network engineer.

My comments on Mitch Fifield’s previous press release on the topic can be read here.

Below is the full transcript of the press conference, as supplied by the Minister Fifield’s office, which starts off with the NBN, veers off into same sex marriage and then goes back to discussing the polls, before finally getting back to the NBN.

The nbn is now available to half of Australia. That’s ahead of schedule and ahead of budget. The nbn is now available to 5.7 million premises nationwide. 2.4 million premises have taken up that opportunity already. By the middle of next year nbn will be three quarters complete and will be done and dusted by 2020.

nbn as a project represents one of the biggest corporate turn arounds in Australia’s history. When we came into office in 2013 the previous government has spent the best part of six billion dollars over two terms in government to connect just 51,000 premises. The nbn essentially was a failed project.

As a result of our change in approach the nbn will be completed by 2020, which is six to eight years sooner than would have been the case under our predecessors and at $30 billion less cost. This is a good story. And can I acknowledge my predecessor Malcolm Turnbull for the work that he put in turning around this project.

Also important to note that today we are releasing a report by the Bureau of Communications Economics from my Department. Which indicates that broadband in Australia under the nbn in terms of price is comparable to the ADSL network. And there are higher data capacities and higher speeds that are available.

So this is something that it is worth pausing and reflecting where we were when we came into government and what has been achieved over the period since. I’ll ask Fiona Nash to speak a little bit about her important responsibilities focusing particularly on regional Australia and then Peter Ryan from nbn will say a few words. Fiona.

Thanks very much Mitch, the nbn is now two thirds built out in rural and regional and remote areas. As the Minister responsible for regional communications I am responsible for Sky Muster and the Fixed Wireless. And they’re both going really well. We’re supercharging the data on Sky Muster and we’re super charging the speed on Wireless. The Fixed Wireless has been a terrific success story.

We’ve now seen 1700 towers built out on the ground across the country in regional areas. Over 180,000 people are now connected to Fixed Wireless, 56 towers going live just this month additionally and that will continue to grow. The satisfaction rating with the Wireless has been tremendous and we’re also going to see the doubling of speeds on that Fixed Wireless capacity.

I relation to the Sky Muster, we inherited Sky Muster from Labor but we’re now absolutely getting the best out of it. We’ve got around 80,000 people now hooked up to Sky Muster. But as I’ve been traveling around to regional communities over the last period of time there have been some who have been concerned about the available level of data.

So the Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield and I worked very, very closely with nbn to come up with a solution to that. Congratulations to them, they’ve come up with some very innovative solutions to a very complex problem. And we’ve now just very recently announced that peak data on Sky Muster will increase by 50% and off-peak data will double.

That is great news for people out in rural and regional areas and has been very well received by people out in those communities. And we’ve also seen across those communities people taking up Sky Muster. It’s providing what they need it to provide. An extra 35 gigabytes will provide around 50 hours extra for business people doing high definition videoconferencing and extra 25 hours perhaps for a student doing university lectures.

We’re going to see now for peak data in October around 100 gigabytes for off-peak around 150 gigabytes delivered. Now that’s going to be fantastic news for people out in rural areas. We’ve now got two satellites up there functioning. Under Labor one was going to be bobbing around just in case they might need backup. We’ve repurposed those so we’re getting the best out of those and now we’re going to see under a Coalition Government on Sky Muster around that 100 gigabytes for peak data compared to if it had been under Labor would have been only 35 and that is great news for people out in our regional communities.

On behalf of the nbn I’m proud to announce that today one in two Australians can now get access to the nbn. Getting access to fast broadband will be the platform that launches Australia into the digital future.

It will define how we work, where we work and how we compete with the rest of the world and today we’re seeing great take up on the nbn with three out of every four homes and business taking up the nbn within 18 months of launch of the ability to connect to the nbn. And today we announce that we are further increasing the pace of the rollout.

As we launch the deployment of it into our capital cities. We encourage all customers to undertake research into the best plans so they are best informed before they make the switch to the nbn.

We understand and appreciate that speeds on the nbn is influenced by many things, everything from the equipment inside a house, the wiring in the house, the nbn itself as well as signal strength. And as Minister Fifield said, our team is on budget and ahead of schedule to complete the rollout by 2020. And we ask for everybody’s patience while we make the transition from the old network to the new network. Thank you.

Minister isn’t the reality that while it’s great that 5.7 million Australians are getting the nbn. This compromised version means that people are dealing with dropouts, long connection times, low speeds and complaints. I mean a short straw poll this morning of people that have the nbn no one person hasn’t had a problem.

nbn, their experience with the rollout, is that they get it right the first time on nine out of ten occasions.

That’s not what people are telling us.

The nbn is one of the most significant and complex infrastructure projects in Australian history. The approach of our predecessors was that Australians would have to wait until 2026 to 2028 to receive the nbn.

The approach of our predecessors was that the project would cost about 30 billion dollars extra. We have taken an approach which will see the nbn rolled out much faster and at significantly less cost. nbn will provide 25 megabits per second nationwide, there are higher speeds available on different technologies and there’s upgrade paths for the future.

But what we decided was that you get the maximum economic benefit from the NBN by getting the NBN to the entire nation as soon as possible.

But where’s the economic benefit if it’s constantly dropping out?

The nbn experience for a majority of people has been a good one. Obviously with a project of this scale and magnitude when you’re connecting the best part of eleven million premises.

When you’re endeavouring to do in six or eight years what it took the PMG and Telecom and Telstra the best part of 100 years to do. There will be on occasion be experiences of consumers that aren’t all that we would want them to be.

But you’re also connecting high tech fibre to something that has been around for fifty, sixty years. Aren’t you, in that last little bit to the house isn’t that where the problem is?

No, Fibre to the Node is a good product. And an overwhelming majority of people on Fibre to the Node have a good experience. People on HFC have a good experience. People with Fixed Wireless have a good experience.

People with satellite overwhelmingly having a good experience. This is a major project. There will obviously be a percentage of experiences in the rollout which aren’t perfect. But nbn is working day by day to improve that experience.

Can I just ask the gentleman from the nbn. How long is this system going to be available? How long is it going to be before it needs to be upgraded to be world’s best?

We are deploying the best network for the needs of Australians today. And upgrading the network is something that we’re looking at and continuing to do all the time. The network that we are deploying will be able to evolve with the needs of Australians as their changes of lifestyle changes of needs grow over time.

So why not just build it once rather than building something that now needs to be upgraded in a few years and what’s that going to cost?

I’ll take that. NBN as a project will reach every household in Australia six to eight years sooner than would otherwise have been the case. When we first came into Government the main complaint that we had from people was that they wanted the nbn sooner rather than later.

That’s what we are delivering. The nbn sooner rather than later. And at 30 billion dollars less cost. This is still a project that will cost $49 billion. Our predecessors want it to cost an extra $30 billion.

Technology and telco networks are not something that are set in stone. They are constantly evolving and they are constantly being upgraded. It wouldn’t matter what the particular methodology was, technology is continually evolving. What we’re doing does not prevent upgrades in the future, as and when they become necessary.

And if you just take the issue of speed. 83% of people on the nbn are opting for speeds of 25 megabits per second or less. Now that statistic doesn’t vary very much whether you’re talking Fibre to the Node or Fibre to the Premise. So the nbn is rolling out a network that can deliver the speeds that Australians want.

Minster I’ll just add to that as well. In relation to the nbn Sky Muster there has been a 90% improvement in stability when we look from April this year back to September the year before. We’ve just recently announced that the Royal Flying Doctors Service has formed a partnership with nbn to rollout right across their network the nbn facility.

We’re looking at 24 base stations that are going to be covered 300 remote clinics that are now going to be covered as part of that partnership. Royal Flying Doctors Service have said themselves that’s going to be cost effective for them. That’s absolutely tremendous.

And the important thing to recognise is not just for the Royal Flying Doctors Service but for people right across rural Australia because of Sky Muster are now getting access to broadband that they never ever had before.

Just to add. The mandate that the Government has given nbn - the multi technology mix mandate - says to nbn, use the technology that makes sense in a given area. Use the technology that can see the NBN rolled out fastest and at lowest cost. Now what that means is that if nbn find that they can do something in a better way then they will do that.

If nbn find that they can upgrade something at the moment then they will do that. Fixed Wireless for instance. nbn thought that the best that they could do was 50 megabits per second. Next year nbn will be launching a product which will see Fixed Wireless able to deliver up to 100 megabits per second. nbn is looking at upgrade paths on the HFC network.

So this is not something that is set in stone. Unlike our predecessors we are not taking a theological approach to the nbn. We’re taking a technology agnostic approach and giving nbn the freedom that it needs to deliver the best possible network.

What do you say to capturing the idea of Australia charging toward the digital future, but with a system that has been described in the foreign media as a cautionary tale. Where people are told that the length of their driveway could affect the quality of their signal. As in the last year Australia’s position in the world rankings on speed has actually fallen?

Well there are periodic assessments of speed that people have in Australia. It’s important to note that in all of those surveys an overwhelming majority of the people who have been surveyed are on the pre-NBN network.

Also that those speed surveys don’t look at the technical capacity of a line they look at the speed that people are actually getting which obviously is a function of the product that they have actually purchased.

So the whole reason that we’re rolling out the nbn is because we recognise that we want to do better and we need to do better. But most of those surveys are covering essentially the pre-nbn network and really just making our case for the need to rollout the nbn sooner rather than later.

If we had followed our predecessors and were waiting an extra six to eight years to roll out the nbn then those particular survey results wouldn’t change any time soon.

So Peter does the length of your driveway affect the sort of signal that you get.

The network that we are deploying will deliver a minimum of 25mbps down.

The question was does the length of your drive way affect your nbn service, and what else affects your nbn service?

It really depends on which technology we’re delivering and where. As the Minister said the aim of the nbn is to deliver the most fit for purpose network to meet the needs of Australians today and the length of the drive way and the length of roads is all taken into account as we design the network to deliver those minimum speeds to deliver on behalf of Australians.

And so what numbers do you have on the number of people who’ve complained about dropouts, disconnections, long time getting connected in the first place?

I don’t have those numbers to hand right here and now. We do acknowledge that we have problems from time to time. As the Minister said, this is a very large complex program that we’re rolling out here.

And we will have problems from time to time and we do seek everyone’s patience as we do that. We know that we’re getting better with time but we will continue to work with our retail service providers in order to continue to improve. Our ambition is to deliver a great customer experience for all our customers.

Isn’t it also true that some of those service providers have been bullying customers into signing up. Almost blinding them with paperwork, goading them into signing up ahead of their competitors so people might not be getting best deal in the end?

This is an area that the ACCC is taking a very close interest in. the ACCC has issued six principles that retail service providers on the nbn should follow. The Government has also announced that we are funding the ACCC to undertake speed monitoring.

There will be 4000 probes embedded in people’s premises which will provide transparency in terms of the speeds that retail services are providing. I’ll also just pick up on something where Peter left off. This multi-technology mix approach that we’re taking. This isn’t unique when you look around the world. If you’re looking at the US or Canada or the UK.

All of those nations are using a range of technolgies. None of those nations are going Fibre to the Premises in every case. Pretty much every nation in the world is taking an approach that uses the technology that makes sense in a given area.

Is part of the problem Minister that the nbn’s own advertising, the advertising of the RSPs is all about the future and fast. And yet survey after survey come back saying people are experiencing slow speeds, dropouts, no better than ADSL. Is the management of the expectations game been the issue here?

Australians want a national fast broadband network. That’s what the Government through the nbn is rolling out. We’ve seen the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman complaint statistics when it comes to nbn services drop in percentage terms 30% in the last report that they provided.

So nbn is getting better and better. It wants to learn from the experience. This is a shared responsibility of nbn as the network provider and the retail service providers as well.

Just on another issue. Would the Government, both Senator Fifield and Senator Nash would you support Senator Dean Smith’s Same-Sex Marriage bill being debated in Parliament?

Well the Government has a policy which it took to the last election. Which was that there should be a nationwide plebiscite to determine whether a bill went forward into the Parliament in relation to same sex marriage. We put a plebiscite bill to the Parliament. The Australian Labor Party stopped that bill.

We could have already had a plebiscite and there could already have been a vote in the Parliament if Bill Shorten had not opposed a plebiscite. Which is strange because Bill Shorten himself previously advocated for a plebiscite. So there is absolutely no reason why the Australian Labor Party should not support a plebiscite.

So does that mean you wouldn’t want to see Senator Dean Smith’s bill debated in Parliament?

Well we have a policy. And our policy is that there should a plebiscite and that that should happen before there is a vote.

Should the plebiscite bill be reintroduced?

The plebiscite remains our policy and I’d encourage Bill Shorten to change his position and to support the passage of a plebiscite bill through the Parliament.

Do you think Tony Abbott’s recent interference in the Liberal Party has impacted the Newspoll results that came out today? With the gap decreasing between the preferred Prime Minister of Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten?

I make it a point to not be a commentator on the polls. There are plenty of people standing around this scrum who are well capable of doing that. In terms of other issues and distractions my advice to all my colleagues is that we focus on the job at hand. And the job that Fiona and I have at hand is to rollout the nbn as fast as possible so that Australians can get the benefit of a national broadband network.

Why do you think that the Coalition is finding it hard to gain traction?

We just focus on doing our job day by day. This is a Parliament that’s working. This is a Government that’s working. As Manager of Government Business in the Senate since we came back into office a year ago we’ve got 165 pieces of legislation through. We’ve got 36 pieces of legislation through in the last sitting fortnight alone.

Pretty much every significant item on our agenda we’ve been able to tick off and get through the Parliament. Whether it be the reintroduction of the Building and Construction Commission, whether it be establishing a registered organisation commission.

Whether it be putting in place protection for country firefighter volunteers in my own state. Whether it be legislating the Omnibus savings bill. Whether it be legislating the education reforms. This is a government that’s getting on with the job and delivering its agenda.

Senator Nash how much are the legal fees that Philp Morris has been ordered to pay the Government?

Health isn’t my area of responsibility any more so that’s probably best directed to the Health Minister. Can I just pick up from where Senator Fifield just finished though in terms of delivery. When it comes to regional Australia we are continuing to deliver for people right across this country.

Whether it’s the $8.4 billion we’ve now seen under the Coalition going to build the inland rail its taken a Coalition Government to get on and build the inland rail. We’ve seen an extra $500 million for regional projects right across this country. $272 million for major regional projects, backing regional communities to think big and deliver big.

They are just as ambitious as the cities and we need to keep backing the regions. We’ve now brought in the National Rural Health Commissioner which is going to drive an even better delivery of regional health services right across this country.

Peter just another question on the nbn. is the nbn looking at changing its wholesale prices, reducing its wholesale prices while there’s obviously issues with speeds and getting the network started?

We’re constantly reviewing our pricing structures, we’re in constant dialog with our retail service providers and its something that we will inform people about as we go along.

Is that an issue coming back to you from RSPs as well as customers who if they dong get the answers from RSPs are coming direct to nbn that it costs too much?

We deal directly with our retail service providers and affordable high speed broadband we know is very important to all Australians and its pricing is something that we will continue to monitor all the time.


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