Interview with Nic Healy, ABC Goulburn Murray

NIC HEALY, HOST: Alluded to before, I do get out to the Violet Town markets each and every month. I actually haven't missed one since I moved into the GV. Time and time again, though, I noticed that I'm not too many minutes out of Shep and on the road when my mobile coverage drops back to almost nothing. And from coverage blackspots to poor home internet connections, whether you're on a property or in town, it still feels like regional telecommunications can be a real throw of the dice in terms of quality and consistency. I know we love where we live, but it's probably one of the things we wouldn't mind changing if we could. The Federal Government recently announced a pretty comprehensive package looking to address certain elements of this issue, and the Communications Minister is Michelle Rowland. Minister, very good morning to you.

MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Good morning, Nic. Good morning to your listeners.

HEALY: We are, of course, here in Violet Town. We are talking to people about why they love where they live. There's many reasons that we do love regional towns. I have to say, internet connection is rarely one of them, but we are seeing some changes coming through to a few regional cities and a few regional suburbs with the NBN.

ROWLAND: We certainly are, Nic. We understand that access to the highest quality communications services, including broadband, is absolutely essential. It's not a nice-to-have. It's just as necessary as water and electricity. That's why we've announced a $2.2 billion investment in regional telecommunications, and that includes a substantial investment in upgrading the National Broadband Network and ensuring that Australians, irrespective of where they live, can access the highest quality broadband through fibre. That's great news for about 660,000 premises in regional Australia.

HEALY: I know more localised you're looking at suburbs, including parts of Albury-Wodonga, and Wangaratta, there are real changes coming. What will be the nature of this upgrade? Are we looking at full fibre?

ROWLAND: We are, Nic, and what we've announced is that we will have full-fibre access to, as I said, some 660,000 premises across regional Australia. The great news for your listeners is that in areas like Albury, East Albury, also in areas like Wangaratta and Wodonga, it's somewhere in the vicinity of about 30,000 premises that will be eligible for a full-fibre upgrade. So that will be an increase in speed, but also in terms of the quality and reliability of those networks, too, where previously so many of those local residents and small businesses had been saddled with a second-rate copper network. We know how important connectivity is for not only small businesses, but the way in which we interact with government now, the amount of e-commerce that we do, the types of study and how we organise our working lives – it’s really essential that irrespective of where you live, you have the best quality broadband.

HEALY: It's interesting you do note that that is – you know, the importance of that for home as well. I think traditionally, when it comes to these upgrades, especially around broadband, there's been more focus on small business because business is changing; homes and business premises – as you said earlier, information is something that everyone should have access to.

ROWLAND: Absolutely. So many of your listeners will be aware that the way in which they're expected to interact with government entities, with private sector entities now, so much more is being done by digital means. If you're excluded from that first-class connectivity, then it really does put you at a disadvantage. I think one thing the pandemic showed us was irrespective of where you live or work, it really made a difference if you had access to the best quality communications. So many things aren't going to change. We are going to be relying on that connectivity more and more, which is why we're making this investment, which is really for the future of your local residents and businesses and basically, everyone.

HEALY: Minister, what's the kind of timing on this rollout? How's the process going to work from now?

ROWLAND: We've announced the first 1 million suburbs around Australia because NBN has done its initial engineering scoping work, and the initial build to increase capacity will take about twelve months. That means that local residents and small businesses should be able to order a fibre upgrade from next year. People can register on NBNCo's website if they want to keep updated and speak to their retailers, speak to NBNCo and track how that's going. But it is really good news for local residents to see that at least we have a timeframe on this, those investments are there, and the improvements will be coming.

HEALY: It's pretty extensive work as well. Are you anticipating disruptions as these cables get laid?

ROWLAND: Often with these disruptions, of course, it's a mammoth job. So, we want to make sure that people are notified about these changes, that they’re cut over and their migration to full-fibre is as seamless as possible. But I think the good news is, because NBN has been doing this construction work and this migration for some years now, they really have reached scale. They've learned how to do things a lot better. But of course, we want to ensure that at the end of the day, the outcome is that people have access to the best connectivity.

HEALY: Minister, thank you so much for your time this morning.