By Julian Bajkowski and Paul Hemsley
Australia’s local government sector has been left facing tough choices over how to deal with the release of Coalition’s policy on the National Broadband Network that would forgo fibre-to-the-premises in favour of recycling Telstra’s ageing copper lines in many regional areas.
After decades of campaigning to get better internet services and infrastructure rolled out to regional areas, councils in the so-called telecommunications badlands must now contend with whether to speak their minds over the Coalition’s ‘NBN-lite’ proposal and risk alienation in the event of a Labor defeat – or continue to agitate for the present NBN model that aims to hardwire homes to fast optical fibre.
It’s a scenario fraught with political risk and uncertainties as the two major parties trade barbs and sling mud over the merits, or otherwise, competing delivery models to address a yawning infrastructure deficit that often defines what services government agencies can deliver in the regions including health and education.
The issue of broadband became a wildcard issue during the last federal election when independents including Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott extracted commitments from Prime Minister Julia Gillard to get the NBN rolled into their electorates as part of the deal to share power and form government in a hung parliament.
A big unknown for many councils and state agencies is how long the existing copper network can continue to deliver viable speeds for the range of rapidly growing online and web-powered applications now becoming mainstream for service delivery – from emergency services notification apps, to customer self-service and access to mapping and geospatial information.
At the Coalition’s policy launch on Tuesday, Opposition Communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull said that “nobody knows” what the ultimate useable lifespan of the copper line network that his policy’s Fibre-to-the-Node platform will be based on.
Under the Coalition’s $29.5 billion policy, direct fibre connections to millions of residential homes –the core promise of the present NBN – will be sacrificed to in favour of rolling out fibre to street-based ‘nodes’ that now fan out copper wire to houses and other premises.
But what is far less clear is what options and opportunities local governments and communities will have to selectively buy-in FTTP at their own expense as connections to nodes are upgraded although Mr Turnbull has pledged that those who want fibre connections and are willing to pay for them at an estimated cost of up to $5000 per connection.
Another complicating factor in the mix is whether or not local governments will be able to facilitate some sort of collective purchasing arrangement to bring down the cost of fibre connections for ratepayers including households and small businesses.
Unsurprisingly, the toxicity of the political atmosphere has councils and their representative bodies biting their tongues.
The Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) is leading the charge of silence and declined to give a statement on “party policy and possible future legislation”.
In Queensland, where many previously flood damaged areas are already being put directly onto fibre rather than re-rolling copper there is also palpable reticence to buy into the now boiling broadband debate.
Aside from speed, an advantage of fibre in flood prone areas is that it is more resilient than copper because it is not an electrical conductor.
Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) President Margaret de Wit was particularly firm in her refusal to speculate on what impact Coalition’s plan will have an impact on councils or communities.
Ms de Wit said she didn’t yet have enough details about the Coalition’s plan to make a fair assessment and said that the LGAQ would not be taking sides on the issue.
“Whoever is in power, we want to work with them to get what those rural and remote areas need,” Ms de Wit said.
Ms de Wit said there would be pros and cons from both sides of politics if one was to do a detailed comparison of what each side offers because the amount of speed needed from broadband needs to be weighed.
“It’s easy to say you need the absolute maximum but what can you reasonably do business with a hundred, a thousand, somewhere in between?” Ms de Wit said.
The LGAQ president said she is not going to do a do a comparison because the Association’s plan is “that whoever is in government we will work with to try to maximise benefits to our rural community”.
Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) President Bill McArthur said it was still too early to tell whether the Coalition’s plan will deliver the high speed broadband that he said the regions have been “crying out” for.
“You’ve got two warring parties out there with the comment on the news, I think it was Penny Wong calling it ‘fraudband’,” Mr McArthur said.
He called for a chance to look at the details given how recently the policy was released.
At Clarence Valley Council on the northern coast of New South Wales fibre construction from NBN Co is scheduled to commence in phases from May 2013.
Clarence Valley Mayor Richie Williamson said that it was too early to tell what are the pros and cons of what the Coalition’s plans might mean.
Mr Williamson said his council had not had time to “sift through the spin” of fibre to the home versus fibre to the node.
“We only learned of the Coalition’s policy [on Tuesday] ourselves . . . it will take some time for the man and the woman in the streets to come to terms with what that actually means,” Mr Williamson said.
However he noted that the copper network in the Clarence Valley area “would be ageing” and at some point will reach its “use-by date”.
“I don’t know if 100Mbps is the Rolls Royce or 15 to 80Mbps is the Commodore, but what I do know is regional Australia wants high speed internet,” Mr Williamson said.
“We will certainly be looking forward to whatever form it may take with high speed broadband.”
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