Interview with Debbie Rybicki, ABC South West Victoria

DEBBIE RYBICKI, HOST: If you've been frustrated with the internet speed at your place, well, listen up. The Federal Government recently announced that one million homes across the country will soon be able to connect to superfast full fibre NBN upgrades. And your house could be one of them. There's about 11,000 houses and small businesses just in Warrnambool. The Federal Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland, is with us on ABC South West Victoria.. Good morning, Minister.


RYBICKI: Now, this rollout is for fibre to the premises and it's happening right across South West Victoria, not just Warrnambool, of course. How is it decided which houses and businesses become eligible for this upgrade?

ROWLAND: NBN Co has undertaken detailed engineering studies of what areas will be upgraded and I'm very pleased there's just over 27,000 premises across southwest Victoria that will be eligible for these upgrades. Exactly as you said, in Warrnambool, there's some 11,000 or so premises. I would point out to your listeners. Warrnambool actually has the biggest upgrade footprint in the nation from copper to fibre, which is great for those local residents and small businesses. We know that fibre is more reliable, there's better speeds, better quality, and it also gives residents and small businesses that choice to have that upgrade, which is great to see.

RYBICKI: So how can someone find out if their address is eligible for the upgrade?

ROWLAND: They can contact their retail service provider or check the NBN Co website, and they can also register for updates to find out when their premises will be eligible for the upgrade. We expect that local residents and small businesses will be able to order a fibre upgrade from 2024. That's part of the one million premises we recently announced as being upgraded from copper to fibre.

RYBICKI: So, this fibre to the house won't come in until 2024?

ROWLAND: That's right. We'll have that engineering work done over the next twelve months, but I think it's really a good sign that we've got so many people who are interested in this already, right across Australia as part of those one million premises. Certainly, this is part of our commitment for that $2.4 billion and having that 1.5 million premises upgraded. I'm very pleased that there's some 660,000 premises across rural and regional Australia that will be part of that as well.

RYBICKI: If residents and business owners, their place is eligible, do they pay for the upgrade as well as updating their service

ROWLAND: They will need to obtain a higher plan through their retail service provider. So, an eligible or higher speed plan. But that full fibre upgrade will come at no cost once they take out that plan.

RYBICKI: There you go. And so, does this apply for people renting as well, then?

ROWLAND: Anyone who has an account and a connection can do this. I strongly encourage people to contact their retail service provider, register with NBN Co, because we want as many people as possible to know that this upgrade is coming and to get ready for it.

RYBICKI: Now, this is great news for those lucky enough to get the upgrade, but what about those who miss out? Are there plans to get everyone on it?

ROWLAND: We've got about half a million other premises that NBN will announce in the near future and again, these are independent engineering decisions that are made by the company. But I also want to assure you, you’ve probably got a lot of listeners who are also on the fixed wireless and satellite services. We're very mindful in those areas that we need to improve those services to meet the needs of local residents and small businesses. That's why we've invested nearly half a billion dollars in upgrading the fixed wireless network and gradually updating the satellite network as well. We only recently announced an unmetered data trial for regional NBN satellite customers and those improvements across fixed wireless and satellite should be felt by local residents and small businesses in the very near future.

So, we're doing our bit as part of our commitment to ensuring that irrespective of where you live or work in Australia, you've got that equality of access to the best quality broadband, because that's a key productivity driver right across our economy.

RYBICKI: Satellite NBN has been pretty unimpressive so far. When those upgrades take place, will it meet the speed that people can just get from a mobile network?

ROWLAND: Gradually, these kinds of technologies are being upgraded and we know that there's competition out there, including, many of your listeners will be aware of the Low Earth Orbit Satellites that are provided by different companies at the moment. For some people, that is what they choose and that suits them. But I think it's very important that the Sky Muster service provided through NBN Co provides that safety net and we continue to upgrade it so that it meets the needs of customers right across rural and regional Australia.

RYBICKI: You're listening to the Federal Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland. If you want me to ask a question of her, text it through and I might just ask it. 0467 842 722.

Minister, the Murdoch papers in particular, and the Liberals put a bit of a smear campaign on the NBN when they were in and sort of made it out like it was just nerds who wanted to watch Netflix on five screens at once. But of course, next minute, during a pandemic, the entire country couldn't even Zoom properly. How do we prevent this sort of thing occurring in the future where one party is able to sabotage national infrastructure because of ideology?

ROWLAND: Well, I'm very positive and very forward-looking when it comes to the NBN. During the pandemic, we had two government business enterprises, Australia Post and the NBN, that did do its job and made sure that we stayed connected. I know that for many customers who at that time, during lockdowns in particular, they found themselves without the kinds of services they needed. I think it's very important to be looking forward and that's certainly what the Albanese Government is doing.

I think we need to get back to first principles. The first principle is that the pandemic taught us that irrespective of where you live or work in Australia, we rely on our communication services more than ever before. It means that the way that we transact, the way that we interact with government, the way we study, we work -- not everything is going to go back to business as usual prior to the pandemic. We're a very forward-looking government. The Prime Minister has made it very clear that we want to increase productivity in every sector of the economy and one of the great enabling ways of doing that is to improve communications, including broadband services.

So, I guess my short answer to your question is, I'm very focused on consumers. This government is very focused on small business and making sure that we do everything as a government to provide the tools for them to succeed and reach their full potential.

RYBICKI: I guess from a more ideological point of view, though, when one government who has a mandate or has the power to create a project that affects all Australians, can you see some sort of governance lever that can be pulled so that there's bipartisan support for it moving forward, so that we don't have this situation where successive governments have flip flopped over how much they support the NBN?

ROWLAND: Your point is well made, and I think that around the world we have seen the desire to provide the best communication services and that reliance on fibre really was a given. It was a given right across Southeast Asia, across Europe, across all parts of the world. It was a shame that in 2013, when the then Abbott government, under Malcolm Turnbull as Communications Minister, decided to take it back to copper. That really did set the project back. But again, I just want to be clear with your listeners that we are very much focused on making this better. We took a policy to the last election, we funded it through our budget processes and said that we want to do a repair job here, we want to ensure that we've got the best technology going forward in all aspects and ultimately, this is about the long-term interests of consumers. So, we are very forward-looking here and want to ensure that, irrespective of where you live or work, you've got those same opportunities as the rest of Australia.

RYBICKI: Changing tack now, as Federal Communications Minister, what is being done about spam and phishing SMSs? Because they're out of control at the moment and they're obviously sucking people in. What's the plan to stop this?

ROWLAND: Absolutely. We're approaching this through a whole of government process. We've got a spam code in place that's been doing its job on some aspects of electronic communications, and we've also got a code that's come into place that requires telecommunications providers to detect, to trace and to block spam calls and texts. That has had great success in terms of blocking large amounts. I think its half a billion spam calls and texts that have been blocked within a short period of time.

But as all your listeners will know, they still receive them. So, it gives you an idea of the scale of the problem. We are looking at developing, along with our communications regulator, and also in conjunction with the industry, with the Telcos and also with the banks, getting in place systems to improve the integrity of our numbering system and initiating requirements that require software to be put in place to prevent this. I think my key message for all your listeners is that if you receive a scam call or text and it seems too good to be true or it looks suspicious, it probably is. I strongly urge all your listeners to exercise due caution but also to be aware this is a top priority of this Government. Our regulatory changes are already having an impact.

We also went to the election with a commitment to establish an anti-scam centre that brings together all aspects of the industry and the economy. Of course, as many of your listeners will know, the recent cyber hacks on big Australian companies have demonstrated that propensity for IDs to be stolen and for criminals to go about their nefarious businesses. Really, we need some heightened awareness on this as well. But I want your listeners to be assured that this is a very high priority for this government. We will continue to pursue measures with industry, but also regulatory measures where necessary, including enforcing those telecommunications regulations that are in place.

RYBICKI: From what you're saying, it seems like you've had some success if you're managing to block half of those messages that are coming through. Are you hopeful to be able to prevent this entirely, with the SMSs?

ROWLAND: I think it’s been well described by many experts that you can make these pipes cleaner. Can you actually ever make them absolutely clean? Unfortunately, there will always be people who find ways around this and are always plying their criminal trade. Once upon a time, your listeners may know one of the most prolific email chains going around was the ‘Nigerian Prince’ scam, asking people to deposit money into a certain account. It's happening in much more devious ways now, including through over the top services. Many of your listeners might unfortunately be familiar with the ‘Hey, Mum’ scam, for example. But again, the coordination between the Australian Federal Police, a strong communications regulator, strong banking regulation and cooperation between government and industry, I think will actually produce results.

We have seen those results already, but again, just the sheer number that have been blocked and the number that are getting through, gives you a sense of the scale of this problem and it is a worldwide problem. I'll probably end on this point. This is also a global issue, and we are actively working with international fora to do what we can to have a coordinated approach to this, because often these are bad actors, sometimes rogue states that are sponsoring this kind of behaviour. But ultimately, our first priority as a government is to keep Australians safe. We know that billions of dollars are lost every year through scams, innocent Australians getting fleeced, and we want to do everything we can to minimise that as much as possible.

RYBICKI: Minister, thank you for your time.

ROWLAND: Absolute pleasure. Thank you.

RYBICKI: Federal Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland there.