SPEECH - ADD THORNTON TO NBN ROLLOUT PLANS

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16 March 2015

I rise today to further outline the very strong case for an area of my electorate to be included in the priority rollout schedule of the National Broadband Network.

The suburb of Thornton is located on the western outskirts of Newcastle, about 25 kilometres by road from the city centre and about 10 kilometres from the nearby hub of Maitland –yet Thornton has some of the poorest quality and poorest access to broadband services in Australia.

Thornton is a mix of about 2500 old and new residences, built from the early 1900s through to pockets of new housing built in recent years - and still ongoing I might add, as Thornton and immediate surrounds are part of a booming growth corridor between Maitland and Raymond Terrace.

It is a popular area for young couples and families to settle and build their life, and for long-term residents to enjoy retirement in the house they’ve lived in and enjoyed for decades.

Despite its close proximity to New South Wales’ second largest city and the major arterial road of Australia’s eastern seaboard, Thornton is a suburb that sits in digital isolation.

According to the Department of Communications’ Broadband Availability and Quality Report, published in December 2013, large parts of Thornton have the poorest access to broadband in the country and the broadband that is available is of the poorest quality, delivering some of the slowest speeds in Australia.

According to the My Broadband checker online tool – a tool that most Thornton residents, can’t check, I might add – Thornton’s current broadband situation is D-E-D dead.

According to the ranking scale where an A ranking is best, and E worst, Thornton scores:

a D rating for availability of broadband.

E for quality of fixed broadband available

And D for current ADSL quality.

When it comes to wireless broadband the situation is little better. Close proximity to the busy freeway and road stops at Hexham and Heatherbrae, mean that the local wireless network is often clogged with travellers checking in on their travel north, leaving the residents with a slow, unreliable and very expensive service.

I have been working with Thornton residents on this issue for more than two years now. The shocking lack of access to broadband and indeed ADSL connections was first raised with me whilst doorknocking in Thornton during my campaign.

Since I was elected in 2013, residents have been in regular contact with me about their broadband and internet malaise. It’s rare that a week goes by without a member of the Thornton community calling my office or writing to me, to tell me about the issues they are having connecting to the internet.

I have made regular representations on their behalf to the Minister for Communications detailing their frustration and at times anger, about not being able to connect to the internet.

To date, the responses from the Minister have been generally hollow with no real answers for the community. No timeline for connection to the NBN, and no solution to their current ADSL and wireless issues.

Frustrated at the lack of detail and action for the Thornton community, I put questions in writing to the Minister, but again, received no real answers and most definitely no action.

Late last year, I wrote to all residents in Thornton asking them to tell me a bit more about their broadband experience.

And the response from the 177 who completed the Thornton broadband survey was overwhelming – no matter what the individual requirements residents have, the current broadband service doesn’t meet the needs of the community today, let alone the needs for the future.

Nearly three quarters of respondents to the survey can’t get access to ADSL broadband at their home.

They’ve tried to get access but have received a number of different reasons for not gaining access.

For some, the stark reality is that without a new phone exchange being built – which would be a very expensive exercise to connect them to the old technology of last century – Thornton residents will never receive access to ADSL broadband. NBN is their only hope.

A lot of people are being forced into using the only service available to them, the very expensive, sometimes unreliable, wireless broadband.

Depending on the agreement they have with their service provider, users may have to pay up to triple the price for a quarter of the data that is available under ADSL or NBN.

Not surprisingly, nearly all respondents to the survey – 99% in fact – reported that they need to use the internet every day, with the most common reasons for using the internet being:

  1. Social connection with friends and family
  2. Shopping for groceries and other items
  3. To do school work or university assignments
  4. To work from home or to operate a small business
  5. Or to do online banking or pay bills.

The survey also allowed respondents to make an open comment about their experience with broadband in Thornton. The comments demonstrated an overwhelmingly sense of frustration regarding both access and quality broadband in Thornton. For the benefit of the House, I’d like to share a few of the comments that were sent to me.

One resident said: “We purchased our home in August 2014, but didn't realise we'd have no access to internet…”

Another asked: “Third world countries can get fast broadband, why not Thornton?”

On the cost of the only option available to many, another said: “Currently using four different wireless accounts, total cost per month $310, total gigabytes per month 32.”

One of the lucky few who has some ADSL access said on the speed of the service he receives: “The maximum speed I have ever got is about 300 kilobytes per seconds.”

And frankly, as one resident put it:

“Expensive, unreliable mobile broadband has resulted in countless hours of frustration”

Their voices were clear – their current level of service is completely unacceptable in 2015.

The Shadow Minister for Communications is very aware of the issues and frustrations of Thornton residents having visiting the area three times in the last 12 months, most recently last week.

He has shared their frustration on the national stage to highlight the gross inadequacy of internet service in areas like Thornton, doing so at the NBN Rebooted conference in Sydney last year.

While it’s been told in the House before, the story he shared is worth telling again – it’s actually one that was shared with me while doorknocking in 2013.

It’s the story of an aged care nurse who lives in Thornton. She lives quite a way from where she works and she has to check her shift rosters online to see when she is required to next work.

That’s where things get interesting. Rather than check on a smart phone, tablet or laptop in the comfort and privacy of her living room as you or I may do, this nurse has to get on a ladder and climb onto her roof to get adequate mobile broadband reception to load a simple text based shift roster.

Unfortunately, the nurse’s story is not unique.

Last week, the Shadow Minister joined me in Thornton at a community forum to discuss the current state of broadband in Thornton and what the future held.

There was standing room only in the St Michael’s Church hall, with more than 100 residents squeezed in to get an update on the situation for broadband services in Thornton.

The residents were understandably anxious, sharing their individual frustrations with the Shadow Minister and me.

There was the story of the mother, who gets up at 5a.m every day, heading into Newcastle city to work. She works a full day, then stays back for a few hours to do her online study on her employer’s network, because she’s worried about using up the expensive wireless data quota at home that her daughter needs for study herself. Returning home at around 7p.m, she has a few hours with family then goes through the same routine the next day.

And so it goes on, day after day.

We also heard the story of a young nurse, who is studying for her Masters in Intensive Paediatric care.

She can’t get access to the internet at home and has to find a way to juggle study, work and her personal life, often being forced to stay on campus until the early hours of the morning to complete her course work before coming home at last.

This is a woman entrusted to care for 26 week premature babies, trying to increase her skills and knowledge via online learning for the benefit of others, without access to the internet.

There’s the father of two young children, who has a passion for technology and the internet. He sets an alarm to get up in the middle of the night for a few hours to get online at the only time he can get decent service.

And the story of the small business owner, who lives in Thornton but has been forced to move his business elsewhere because he can’t get adequate service to operated his business. In the 21st century, a business that can’t get online is a business that will struggle.

One of the listed fundamentals of the NBN Co’s rollout plan is the prioritisation of construction of the NBN in communities in regional and rural Australia with limited or no current access to broadband.

Thornton most definitely meets this fundamental criteria.

But to-date, they have been left behind by this Government, and left off all roll out plans.

As our lives continue to move online, from the provision of government services and transactions, to online shopping, working and study, the Government most definitely has a role to play in ensuring that no resident is left behind and isolated from the online world – to not do so is completely unacceptable.

I gave an assurance to the Thornton community last week that I would not rest until they had access to a level of broadband that they need, want and deserve.

I again put the Minister for Communications on notice and call on him to ensure that Thornton is added to the next round of rollout plans as a matter of urgency. The people of Thornton deserve no less and I will continue to put their case day after day until the Minister acts.

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Authorised by Sharon Claydon MP, 427 Hunter Street Newcastle