By Julian Bajkowski
The already bitter war of words over the progress of the rollout of the National Broadband Network has intensified after federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy pounced on a dissenting report from a Coalition members of a Parliamentary Committee delving into the project to rekindle accusations that the Opposition is plotting to “demolish” the fibre build if it wins power.
The government is claiming that recommendations from the Coalition contained in the fourth report of the Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network amount to confirmation that the project will be halted after the Coalition warned the network builder it needed to consider the legal implications of a change of government.
“The benefits of changing contract terms in the lead up to the September 14th election need to be clearly articulated by the NBN Co.,” the Coalition’s dissenting report recommended.
“The NBN Co and its board should be clearly mindful of a possibility of a change of Government and the need to alter contracts down the contract. The NBN Co and its board should ensure suitable flexibility is written into the terms of future contracts. If this is not possible, then the likely costs of changing and lengthening contract terms need to be weighed against perceived benefits.”
Senator Conroy’s claim that the Coalition is planning to get rid of the Fibre To The Home (FTTH) build stems from a 2010 statement by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott that he had told Communications shadow Malcolm Turnbull to “demolish” the project.
While Mr Turnbull has repeatedly sought to outline cheaper alternatives to FTTH that could potentially take advantage of already completed work on the NBN, Mr Abbott is yet to clarify his position on its so-called demolition.
The hardball tactics of the Coalition during the committee process have drawn a stern rebuke from NBN Committee chairman and independent MP Rob Oakeshot – a former Nationals member – who warned that partisan baggage needed to be checked at the Committee door in line with Parliamentary tradition.
“It has been several months of disagreement between committee members on some very basic points in this report that have seen the report delivered later than planned.
"This is disappointing,” Mr Oakeshott said.
“The tradition of committee membership in Australian political culture is that adversarial politics is left at the door. It is a concern to many that this culture is showing signs of changing on this Committee, where sensitivities of our oversight work as compared to political party election platforms has made the work of the committee much more difficult than it need be.”
Despite being overshadowed by the shouting match over tactics, the NBN Committee report has illuminated a number of issues with potentially serious implications for consumers, local governments and NBN Co. itself.
A key recommendation of the Committee is that the government “expand the scope of NBN Co responsibilities to continue to explore the synergies between fixed and mobile telecommunications networks with a view to using the NBN to improve mobile telecommunications as well as providing broadband services.”
“Allowing private providers to ‘piggyback’ off of NBN Co infrastructure to provide mobile telephone services would be a timely and efficient use of telecommunications resources in regional and remote Australia,” the report said.
The issue of poor mobile services in many parts of regional Australia has been a bone of contention between carriers and governments of all flavours as mobile services have grown to be regarded as a staple communications service rather than a luxury.
At the same time many state government emergency services now push warning and evacuation messages directly to people’s mobile phones as disasters like bushfires, cyclones and floods unfold.
The report has also recommended that the government explore the possibility of allowing private equity to buy into the project as a way of sharing the government’s immediate financial load.
“The committee recommends that the Government: seek to gauge investor interest in the National Broadband Network; and investigate the optimum capital structure for the NBN Co.,” the report said.
However that idea has already been hosed down by the that the Department of Broadband Communications and the Digital Economy which does not view private investment as comfortable fit for the project.
One issue the NBN Co. is clearly feeling some discomfort over is how to plug blocks of flats into the new network, not least because of the difficulties of rewiring strata and multi-dwelling premises with optical fibre.
The scenario threatens a repeat episode of the so-called ‘Pay TV wars’ where residents in flats often missed out on services like Foxtel because contractors were not able to wire-up unit blocks because of a combination of access problems, strata-management disputes and occasional conflicts with local governments.
The issue of access to “Multi Dwelling Units” (MDUs) was again raised by Mr Turnbull this month when he complained that many of his constituents lived in flats and didn’t know when they might get the NBN.
In its dissenting report the Coalition has recommended that “the NBN should immediately investigate international experience of connecting MDUs using existing internal wiring, including Fibre to the Basement.”
That would mean that flat dwellers potentially connected to the NBN using either cable television wiring or existing phone copper wiring.
“The Shareholder Minister’s Statement of Expectations to the NBN Co should be amended so that the NBN Co is no longer expected to terminate the fibre at each individual premises. The NBN Co should be given scope to terminate the fibre at an appropriate distance from the end user’s premises, as would still allow the delivery of very fast broadband,” the dissenting report said.
It claimed that “the bottom line is that Australia’s largest infrastructure project in history is a black box.”
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