Address to RadComms 2022 Conference
Acknowledgement of country
I begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the place we are meeting on – the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation.
I pay my respects to their Elders, past present and emerging.
I extend that respect to any First Nations people who are here today.
Thank you, Chair, for the introduction. Australia is fortunate to have someone of such great capacity leading this important institution.
I am pleased to be here, for the return of RadComms, in my first address to this forum.
The theme of the conference is “Making Waves”.
To “make waves” is to have an impact.
Radcomms certainly does have an impact. The ripple effect of innovation in this sector is transformational.
Ongoing technological evolution changes how we live, work and play, and underpins our success as a nation.
Governments also have impact.
As Paul Keating once said, “When you change the government, you change the country”.
The new Government is focussed on achieving outcomes to deliver on the promise of A Better Future for all Australians.
As Minister for Communications, I appreciate that it is the stability and predictability of arrangements to manage the radiofrequency spectrum that fosters the investment and innovation that, ultimately, benefits consumers.
Which is to say that – not making waves about how the radio waves are managed may be the order of the day!
That is not to say we stand still however.
In the recent Budget 2022-23 the Government committed a $27.7 million investment over five years to support ACMA’s delivery of a modernised spectrum management system and a new auction capability.
Budget priorities are always contested, but the ACMA’s work in spectrum management and running complex high-stakes auctions is significant and I am pleased the Government’s budget secured the needed funding to provide long-term certainty for the ACMA in these areas.
The ACMA’s Five Year Spectrum Outlook (FYSO) also speaks to the value of predictability in this area.
For well over a decade, the ACMA has been publishing a five-year work plan, in communication with industry stakeholders to signal its priorities. Since the passage of the amendments to the Radiocommunications Act, which Labor supported, this is now a legislated requirement.
I congratulate the ACMA on its Five-Year Spectrum Outlook – both the latest version of it, but as importantly, the rigorous and consultative process which the ACMA use to revise the FYSO.
The nature of government is it can easily lose focus and become tethered to the short-term. I believe the FYSO is an important process and delivers a robust long-term roadmap which is critical in this area.
As Minister, I do of course have a formal relationship with ACMA.
In that role, I have emphasised my priorities and commitments to the ACMA and there are a few items that are worth noting from the outset:
This Labor Government is very focused on ensuring that regional Australia receives the focus and support it is entitled to.
I have emphasised to the ACMA, and you would have seen this reflected in the FYSO, the importance of enabling investment in regional and remote communications infrastructure.
And today, I will discuss some of the Government’s priorities in the communications space.
But before I do, I affirm that the Albanese Labor Government takes the principles that guide the management and use of the radiofrequency spectrum seriously.
Whether it’s investing in new kit for the ACMA, or permitting Community TV to stay on air until there’s an alternative use of spectrum they occupy, the principle of efficient use is not something we simply pay lip service to.
I have also introduced a bill to streamline community radio licensing arrangements to give greater certainty to broadcasters and listeners. My very first bill as Minister.
This bill supports efficient use of spectrum by allowing licences to be allocated in advance, thereby providing prospective stations with notice to prepare broadcasting infrastructure and content programming before the commencement date, among other things.
You can take from all of this that radiocommunications and the ACMA’s work are very significant priorities for the Albanese Government and myself as Minister.
Turning now to issues which are of current concern to many Australians: I’ll touch briefly on the recent floods and data breaches.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen extensive flooding in many areas, where reliable communications can save properties and save lives.
Satellite services, such as NBN Sky Muster Plus, have been critical elements of the disaster response.
Over 1,000 Sky Muster Plus services have been deployed to evacuation centres and emergency services sites under the STAND program and NBN have advised that over 1,000 members of the public have used those services in the recent floods.
Towns such as Shepparton, Bendigo and Echuca, have benefited from these services helping these communities to connect with friends and family, and with government services while accessing the evacuation centres.
The resilience of communications networks is fundamental and should be a bipartisan priority so I am pleased that in the October budget I announced $100m for continuing communications resilience initiatives with an expanded focus on innovative solutions especially in the area of power which is usually the weakest link in the communications chain.
Optus and Medibank data breaches
Many Australians are also experiencing the distress and disruption caused by high profile data breaches, like Optus and Medibank.
All telcos have obligations regarding how they acquire, retain, protect and dispose of the personal information of their customers.
Notwithstanding this, Federal and State governments continue to work closely with Optus to reduce the potential for harms which have arisen as a consequence of the data breach
The Treasurer and I moved quickly to introduce new regulations to allow telecommunications companies to share information with financial institutions and Government agencies to protect consumers.
These came into effect in mid-October.
They have been carefully designed with strong privacy and security safeguards to ensure that only limited information can be made available for certain purposes.
These are temporary measures to support the response to the Optus incident, but they do not solve the longer-term challenge by any means.
Adverse cyber activity is increasing rapidly and it goes without saying how important it is to conduct serious and regular reviews of your cyber-security defences and ensure that you are not only meeting but exceeding your obligations to protect sensitive information are being met.
Closing the Gap
I want to turn now to Closing the Gap.
In 2020, the Australian Digital Inclusion Index showed that First Nations people had concerningly low levels of inclusion – approximately eight points below the national average. This average of course obscures the outliers.
While some urban indigenous Australians have equal or even higher levels of digital inclusion, many regional, rural and especially remote indigenous communities have disturbingly low levels of digital inclusion.
I invite you to reflect upon the increasing importance of communications, broadcasting and media to all of our lives. Then imagine the impact that a lack of services or even an outage can have in a remote indigenous community.
Economic and social activity can literally grind to a halt with no access to government services, and no access to financial services.
While there has been some modest improvement over recent years and some good initiatives, especially from NBN Co and Telstra, much more needs to be done.
Target 17 in the National Agreement on Closing the Gap is very clear. It commits to the goal of elimination of digital inequality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders by 2026.
I have three key priorities in this area and we will need all of your energy and support to make substantial progress towards Closing this all-important Gap.
Firstly, many of you were engaged in the development of the first Indigenous Digital Inclusion Plan and I thank you for your input. The final version will be released in the coming weeks and this will be an important part of the approach going forward.
The Plan provided a useful framework for considering digital inclusion for First Nations people, and identifying priorities for future action, but since it was born out of the Regional Telecommunications Review, it is largely focused on telecommunications whereas Target 17 has a broader scope including broadcasting and media.
The second element is data. The aim is to close the gap and it is difficult to conceive how this could be achieved without robust consistent data sets which assess and track the level of digital inclusion.
The RMIT/Telstra work on the Australian Digital Inclusion Index and the new project on Mapping the Digital Gap will be important pieces of the solution.
The third key element is the establishment of a First Nations digital inclusion advisory group which was also announced in the Budget.
This group will provide strategic advice to me across the full portfolio of telco, broadcasting and media, and across the three key elements of inclusion: access, affordability and ability.
The first role of the advisory group will be to pool, document and assess the many initiatives which are underway and bring First Nations perspectives to prioritise initiatives which have demonstrated the best chance of success.
I encourage you all to consider which initiatives you would put forward to the group as potential key initiatives going forward.
Budget priorities – Regional Communications
Improving regional communications is a top order priority for the Albanese Government.
We have committed to one of the most significant regional telecommunications investment packages since the establishment of the National Broadband Network over a decade ago.
We are investing over $2.2 billion in regional telecommunications over the next five years. This includes: $656 million for the Better Connectivity Plan for Regional and Rural Australia; $1.1 billion for full fibre NBN upgrades in regional Australia; and $480 million for upgrades to the NBN fixed wireless network.
This represent a major increase in regional communications funding and one of the most significant commitments to regional communications since the establishment of the NBN.
Better Connectivity Plan
The Government’s Better Connectivity Plan for Regional and Rural Australia is central to this investment.
The Plan sees more than $656 million in new funding delivered over the next five years to improve communications in rural and regional Australia, including:
- $400 million to expand regional mobile coverage and improve the resilience of communications systems;
- $200 million for two further rounds of the Regional Connectivity Program, which will be familiar to you; and
- $30 million over three years to accelerate Australia’s agricultural sector through the On Farm Connectivity Program.
The Plan will also provide:
- $20 million for an independent audit of mobile coverage to establish an evidence baseline to inform future priorities; and
- a further $6 million over three years to extend the Regional Tech Hub.
Co-investment in multi-carrier regional mobile infrastructure
A key component of the Government’s Better Connectivity Plan is funding for multi-carrier mobile coverage on roads, and improved regional and rural mobile coverage.
In most large population centres, people can access three mobile networks. However, in many areas there is only one network.
First and foremost, where there is no mobile coverage in a community at all, people living there want mobile coverage; however, where Government invests in expanding mobile coverage, people are increasingly asking why they can’t have a choice of providers like their city cousins.
We are keen to see what can be done about this in practice, and we have an open mind about how multi-carrier coverage could be delivered.
In this context, I have asked the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts to inquire into multi-carrier mobile coverage in regional Australia, and incentivising the commercial operators.
I encourage industry to participate in this process in the spirit of finding a real solution to a real need.
New communications resilience programs
The Better Connectivity Plan also recognises the importance of improving network resilience with $100m committed to communications resilience.
The Department are preparing draft guidelines on the basis of three distinct streams of work in this area:
- The first is a Broadcasting Resilience Program for identified emergency broadcasting tower sites that provide ABC AM services in regional areas at risk from natural disasters.
- The second stream is a Telecommunications Resilience Disaster and Innovation Program. This will build on and extend the STAND program with a new and more comprehensive initiative.
- The third is further funding for of the Mobile Network Hardening Program, to reduce the risks of service outages and improve restoration times during natural disasters.
One key area of focus across these will be innovation – how to develop innovative new solutions which provide substantially higher public benefit.
NBN Fixed wireless upgrades
The Plan is supported by the Government’s commitment of $480 million to upgrade the NBN Fixed Wireless network.
This will upgrade 120,000 satellite premises to Fixed Wireless, and boost the Fixed Wireless network with speeds up to 100 Megabits-per-second for the entire footprint, and up to 250 megabits-per-second for 85 per cent of Fixed Wireless premises.
This also delivers important benefits to NBN satellite services by relieving satellite capacity. NBN Co will deliver this upgrade by 2024.
While I’m talking about the NBN, in this year’s Budget we also provided NBN Co with a $2.4 billion equity investment over four years.
Importantly of this $2.4 billion investment, over $1.1 billion is to deliver new regional investment to expand fibre access to 660,000 regional and remote homes and businesses.
This delivers on our commitment to expand full-fibre access to 1.5 million premises which are currently relying on copper-based connections.
This is the technology which the NBN should always have delivered.
I also want to mention Low Earth Orbit satellites, which have great potential to deliver new broadband and voice services in regional Australia.
Some early reports about what Starlink is delivering in rural and remote areas have been positive, and OneWeb has recently announced new Australian partnerships for access to its network of LEOSats.
Naturally the Government is very interested in what LEOsats can do.
However, it is a little too early to say if the LEOSats business offering can be a sustainable long-term alternative for Australia.
We need to look at the hard facts and numbers as well.
So I’ve asked my Department to commence work on the establishment of a Low Earth Orbit working group. This will help inform Government about how this emerging capability might play a role in future telecommunications policy.
There may be a better technology around the corner, but this shouldn’t support indecision in the meantime.
Future of Broadcasting
And now I’ll turn to the Future of Broadcasting. Perhaps the most important thing that I can say is that I firmly believe that there is one: a future for broadcasting, that is.
This may sound obvious to many of you, but there have been many questions over time, especially as to whether streaming has developed to the point that broadcasting would simply be subsumed as packets of data flowing over telecommunications networks.
I am convinced that much of the uncertainty and lack of progress under the former government was due to the fact that it wasn’t clear on that fundamental question – is there a future for broadcasting?
I am very clear. I believe that broadcasting services play a crucial and most importantly a distinctive role in supporting our sense of cultural identity and informing and entertaining all Australians; from news services to sport to entertainment and more.
In the spectrum space, any major policy decisions will take careful account of the priority to ensure a robust and sustainable broadcasting sector.
In August, I was very pleased to attend a meeting of the industry-led Future of Broadcasting Working Group. This was set up by the former government, but I hope that you are seeing that I am taking a balanced, principled and evidence-driven approach. Where structures and programs are sensible and performing a significant role, I will continue them and the Future of Broadcasting Working Group is one of those.
Participants have identified three initial work streams to be progressed; connected TV prominence; remote broadcasting and satellite television issues; and more efficient technical transmission standards.
Decisions and outputs from the Working Group will be important inputs to future technology choices and consideration of media policy settings.
Since this is the radiocommunications conference, it would be remiss of me not to touch upon spectrum.
There are important questions in the future regarding the best use of the spectrum currently used by TV. But while spectrum efficiency is a high priority, rest assured that a core objective of my government will be ensuring the future availability of free, local TV services that are viable and serving the Australian community with great content.
Without this commitment, TV audiences risk losing access to trusted news, local stories and free sport.
Australia’s free-to-air TV service is the product of ongoing collaboration between government and the private sector, each working together to ensure universal availability of a mix of high-quality, locally relevant, free television services.
All commercial and national TV networks have welcomed the conversation with government about a roadmap for the future evolution of the free-to-air TV platform. They have shown an initial willingness to engage in the technical and wider policy aspects of this discussion.
Any potential for changes in spectrum use needs to be part of a broader conversation about the longer-term TV technology platform.
To this end, my department will be working with all stakeholders on a long-term technology roadmap for the sector. The TV delivery platform is a hybrid one, with terrestrial and satellite broadcasting and online delivery all playing key roles. A roadmap to the technology future of Australian television will need to be similarly holistic.
Spectrum underpins most of technologies I’ve been talking about today – Sky Muster, LEOSats, fixed wireless, mobile services and broadcasting.
This is why an effective spectrum management and allocation framework is so important.
I am pleased that the ACMA’s plans for the forthcoming allocation of spectrum in the 3.4 to 4 Gigahertz band will support digital connectivity and investment in regional Australia.
This mid‑band spectrum is important for the deployment of new and innovative technology, including 5G services, and should support a range of use cases and users.
Australia has moved quickly to allocate spectrum for 5G, and this new allocation of mid‑band spectrum will support the development and capacity of 5G services in the years to come.
In conclusion, we will be a Government of delivery, focussed on outcomes.
And, while outcomes across this policy space are long term, we are keenly aware of the need to lay the groundwork for future success in this term.
I hope that you have seen that we have hit the ground running and that I and my office have been very open and very engaged.
I thank you for your engagement and support and look forward to continuing the valuable work that you are all engaged in.