NBN broadband tax referred to Senate committee

Three Bills sent off to Senate Standing Committees on Environment and Communications last week.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

After being introduced in the House of Representatives, the government's Telecommunications (Regional Broadband Scheme) Charge Bill 2019 and Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill 2019 were last week referred to the Senate Standing Committees on Environment and Communications.

The Regional Broadband Scheme, also known as the broadband tax, was recommended to be passed by the committee in September 2017, and would establish a AU$7.10 monthly charge to all fixed-line broadband customers to subsidise those connecting to NBN's loss-making fixed wireless and satellite technologies.

The broadband tax is set to commence the first July after the Bill is passed, which at this stage would be July 2020 if the government gets its way. The charge is indexed yearly.

The Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer) Bill would allow telcos to operate "superfast" broadband networks as both wholesalers and retailers, not only as wholesalers as currently allowed, and introduce statutory infrastructure provider obligations on NBN to connect a premises when asked to by a retailer at a minimum rate of 25/5Mbps.

"The bills were previously passed by the House of Representatives in 2018, but had not been passed by the Senate before the 2019 election," Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts Paul Fletcher said last Thursday.

"The government is bringing them back largely as previously introduced. There are some amendments that are operational improvements. There are also some amendments to the Regional Broadband Scheme to adopt amendments moved by the opposition when the bills were previously before the parliament."

The two Bills were referred the same day to the Senate Standing Committees on Environment and Communications, with submissions to close on the joint inquiry on December 20, and a reporting date set for 21 February 2020.

At the same time in the Senate, South Australian Senator Stirling Griff introduced the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Unsolicited Communications) Bill 2019 that would amend the Electoral Act to require election-related calls to identify the use of actors at the beginning of the call, allow people on the Do Not Call register to opt-out of calls from charities, and amend the Spam Act to force political parties to allow citizens to unsubscribe from communications.

Similar to the government's Bills, Griff's Bill also lapsed at the May election.

Griff said in his second reading speech that the Bill gives some power back to the people.

"It seeks to give consumers and voters more control over unsolicited electronic and telephone communication from political parties and registered charities, which currently enjoy broad exemptions from laws that otherwise prohibit or limit telemarketing calls and spam messages," he said.

"This problem was highlighted most recently when Mr Clive Palmer spammed voters nationally with SMS messages, prompting hundreds of complaints to the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

"It is not the first time this is happened and, unless the measures in this bill pass, it will not be the last. We know voters are unhappy about receiving these SMS messages, but ACMA is largely powerless to act on these complaints."

The inquiry looking into Griff's Bill is accepting submissions until February 21, and is due to report back on April 17.

Last week, ACMA proposed a three-point plan to crack down on phone scams.

ACMA said it was already trailing a Do Not Originate list that requires telcos to identify and block calls that appear to come from well-known Australian organisations but are actually made by scammers.

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