I also want to thank my amazing adviser Pia Waugh and acknowledge the enormous contribution she has made in a very short period of time! My new website, the public spheres, including the wiki are true innovations in consultative political processes and I am really thrilled with the attention they are receiving. It’s attention not just for the issues we are exploring, such as high bandwidth networks (Publicshere#1) and government 2.0 (Publicsphere#2), but the way in which we are going about it.
For me, it has been very positive and I am inspired by the constructive participation it has generated.
Note: the content on the screen wasn’t clear in the photo, so it has been slightly edited to include the screenshot.
Below is the transcript for the video of the questions asked by Senator Kate Lundy at Senate Estimates about the Public Sphere feedback. Please see the original transcript from Hansard for more details.
Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy
Tuesday 26th May
Senator LUNDY —The first questions I have relate to the digital economy consultation process. I note that the consultation draft for the Digital Economy Future Directions paper was released late last year and that submissions to that draft consultation paper closed on 11 February. How many submissions were received? What is the time frame now for the consideration of those submissions and the release of the final paper?
Mr Cameron —You are correct. The consultation paper of the Digital Economy Future Directions paper was released late last year. That in fact followed a number of other consultation processes, including three industry workshops and a forum that the minister held in September. Over 110 submissions were received by the department in relation to the consultation paper. All of those submissions, with the exception of a small number where the submitters requested confidentiality, have been put up on the department’s website. The department has been carefully reviewing those submissions and, subject to decisions of government, we expect that the final future directions paper will be released in the middle of this year.
Senator LUNDY —As far as the online forum that was conducted is concerned, what sort of activity can you report that occurred on the blog associated with that online forum around the future directions paper?
Mr Cameron —A blog was run for a three-week period in December of last year. I think it was for less than three weeks. During the course of that blog, 2,456 comments were received in relation to a number of subject topics that were put up over the course of the blog. Those comments covered a large range of issues and the comments made have been another useful source of information and commentary for the purposes of the future directions document.
Senator LUNDY —Were there any other sources of information? You have mentioned three industry consultations, the online forum and associated blog and the submissions. Are there any other resources you are drawing on?
Mr Cameron —They were the formal consultation mechanisms.
Senator Conroy —We had the three workshops and then we had the broader forum. That was for the work from the workshops.
Mr Cameron —That is correct.
Senator LUNDY —That was not just an online forum; there was an actual forum as well?
Senator Conroy —There was an actual forum as well.
Senator LUNDY —That is what I thought.
Mr Cameron —Clearly the department continues to engage with interested parties and industry associations as we work through the sorts of issues that have been raised through each of those formal processes.
Senator LUNDY —I am interested to explore that further. For example, for groups or organisations or even individuals who have ideas about how to progress our digital future—and I should say that I conducted such a forum myself called Public Sphere—I want to get an idea from the department or indeed the minister as to the best way to forward those ideas to your office to form part of those considerations. What sort of processes or formats are you looking for putting those ideas and I guess input in?
Mr Cameron —The department would welcome continued engagement from interested parties on these issues in the future. I think one of the key points about the digital economy is that it is highly dynamic in its nature as to the way in which it is transforming people’s engagement with technology in their social lives as well as their economic lives. It is something which is evolving quite rapidly and we recognise that it is important for there to be an ongoing discussion. The future directions paper is written and is conceived as the beginning, or part of the beginning, of an ongoing process of conversation. We would welcome people approaching the department either directly or through the minister with written ideas or by giving us the opportunity for us to meet with them to talk through those sorts of ideas. If relevant we can incorporate them into the future directions document or they can be part of the ongoing work of our engagement on these issues.
Senator Conroy —Can I endorse what Mr Cameron said. We welcome all input. Congratulations to everyone, including Senator Lundy, for organising forums. We welcome absolutely ongoing participation. With the incredible speed with which technology and ideas are developing in this sector, we must remain in regular contact. We try to meet as many people as we can. I am sure we do not meet everyone who would like to meet us. There are only so many hours in a day. But with all the technology—the blog, the departmental website—and the reorganisation of the department, which I think should be noted, to give a greater focus to the digital economy area we are very keen for all of that input to keep coming in through yourself, my office, the department or in any way that people can.
Senator LUNDY —Thank you for that. Obviously I think it is a really important opportunity. Particularly with the prospects of the NBN, I know that there is a great deal of interest with people preparing for a high bandwidth environment and really wanting to optimise what it means. You just mentioned restructuring the department to put a greater emphasis on it. Can I get you to outline that briefly and give details about who the contact point or where the contact point would be within that area of the department for these ideas?
Mr Cameron —As the secretary and I indicated earlier in the hearings, the department is being reorganised into three broad program groups, one of which is a group identified as the Digital Economy and Services Group, which establishes two divisions that will focus essentially on the services delivered over communications networks. In this day and age this is increasingly being fundamentally over broadband networks. That group will focus not only on some of the broad and high level policy issues associated with the evolving digital economy but also administers and delivers a range of program initiatives designed to facilitate access to broadband services and facilitate more innovative use of those services. In fact there have been discussions on some of those programs like the ABG Digital Regions initiative and NICTA during the course of the hearings this morning.
That reorganisation does bring together the range of parts of the department that deal directly with the service layer of a converged world which essentially is the digital economy. In terms of the future directions document, my division has primary responsibility for driving that process and Mia Garlick is the assistant secretary who will as of Monday be heading up our Digital Economy and Convergent Strategy Branch. Both myself and Ms Garlick are probably the most appropriate starting points for people who wish to contact us on those sorts of issues.
Senator LUNDY —Thank you for that. That is very helpful and I will be taking up that offer. Before I conclude, can I move briefly on to a couple of other issues in 1.2. One of them relates to a TIO program which I think was called the Connect Resolve Campaign. What did that involve and what is its status?
Mr Besgrove —The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman is an industry funded body which investigates complaints raised against carriers by communications consumers throughout Australia. The way in which the TIO is funded is entirely a function of the volume of those complaints. The TIO has become increasingly concerned over the last couple of years that it found itself growing because the number of complaints were in fact growing quite substantially both as to volume of individual complaints and the range of issues that consumers were raising when they did make those complaints. I should add that complaints which go to the TIO are very frequently those where consumers have not been able to get satisfaction from the carriers in the first instance. The TIO is what is known as the elevated complaints organisation for these purposes.
The TIO decided to embark upon a more ambitious awareness-raising and publicising campaign called Connect Resolve, which it launched last year. The minister participated in the launch of that campaign. It runs over the remainder of the financial year, so it is getting close to its initial conclusion. The purpose of the Connect Resolve campaign is to increase both consumer awareness of the sorts of recourses they may have if they have concerns in relation to their carrier’s performance but more importantly it is deliberately designed to engage with senior management of the carriers throughout Australia.
I think it is fair to say that a combination of the efforts of the TIO combined with a number of public pronouncements which the minister has made, along with other interactions which the minister and the department have had with the industry, have certainly caught their attention. It is certainly the case that the carriers are now adopting a range of measures to deliberately try to train their front-line staff. We have examples from several of the carriers of quite explicit training initiatives to try to enable front-line staff to be able to resolve complaints by customers much more quickly. We also have a number of undertakings from the CEOs of some of the carriers indicating quite clearly to the minister that they are in fact actively engaged in responding to these issues. We are I guess guardedly optimistic that this might be getting somewhere.
Senator LUNDY —For people who want to be part of Connect Resolve or who may have a connection complaint that they have not had resolved is it just a question of using the TIO website and the normal processes to make contact?
Mr Besgrove —The TIO website is a good place to start. But what the TIO will usually ask is: have you first spoken to your carrier? If the carriers were here they would say that they already deal with a very large volume of complaints which never go beyond them because they are able to resolve them. The TIO is really there to investigate and seek solutions to more complex or more intractable problems.
The concern which the department has had is that, despite that, the volume of complaints going to the TIO has been increasing year after year. I have referred a couple of times to the mobile premium services issue. That was a good example where it received much more attention over the last 18 months in part because of the very significant spike in complaints. At one point the TIO were fielding about 3,000 complaints a month.
Senator MINCHIN —I am sorry to interrupt, but it is after 2.15 on the second day and we have not touched on the NBN—
Senator LUNDY —I just wanted to place one more question on notice. I am very conscious of the time. I did say I would only take about 15 minutes. Could you take on notice providing information about TIO complaints relating to pair gain systems? I still get complaints about people who cannot access ADSL services because of the existence of pair gain systems and the trouble they have getting that resolved. I am interested to follow that up from the TIO’s perspective.
Mr Besgrove —Certainly.