Both Labor and the Liberals are promising Australians a comprehensive fibre network, but they’re clashing over how to deliver it and how much it will cost.
Representing Labor in the red shorts is shadow Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, against returning Liberal Communications Minister Helen Coonan, who has poured billions into broadband to defend her title.
The bitter rivalry kicked off this year with a each minister declaring a pre-match manifesto that Australians will have “super-fast broadband” using a fibre-to-the-Node (FttN) network.
Both parties agreed network tenders must be available to local and international industry bids and be open-access. They also agreed, one way or another, that remote Australia will miss out on fibre due to immense backhaul costs.
But both opponents pulled no punches on FttN network costing, scope, and construction schedules.
Conroy pledged A$4.3 billion of taxpayer’s money to push the fibre network into areas deemed non-commercial by telco providers, while the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) declared it would maintain an open-access regime to separate network control from service delivery.What we see is an evolution of broadband technologies that will gradually progress from what we call fibre-to-the-node to fibre-to-the-home.Dragan Nerandzic>Text
The opposition’s FttN network is based on Telstra’s 2005 proposal which has been fully costed at A$8 billion of government and private funds and will be rolled out over five years.
Coonan’s fibre-optic visions would result in similar network built on private industry funds, without government contribution.
The two funding models have fuelled fighting between the parties and industry over the need for open access.
The debate surrounds the necessity for open competitive access to networks versus the need for infrastructure owners to price accordingly to recuperate invested capital. It harks back to the decision of the Hawke government’s Communications Minister Kim Beazley to hand the copper wires to Telstra.
Rivalry between the opponents gained more friction earlier this year when Coonan pledged A$1 billion to plug regional broadband black spots.
The smaller providers squabbled with the giants as the then A$620 million bait was cast into the telecommunications industry audience.
In a seemingly David and Goliath-style victory, the prize went to the Optus-Elders led OPEL network, but not everyone saw it that way.
The OPEL network received A$958 million from the A$1.85 billion Broadband Connect program and more than A$900 million from OPEL, and promises speeds of 12M bps for most rural areas by expanding WiMax infrastructure.
Telstra took Coonan to court in August this year over an extra A$342 million sweetener that it argued was surreptitiously poured into the deal behind the telco’s back.
Big T claimed it would have forwarded a different proposal if it had known about the extra funds, and also expressed anger over the early termination of the tender deadline. The court rejected the telco’s demands to see the proposal papers in October.
Meanwhile, Conroy blasted the proposal, suggesting along with other industry players that hardware and spectrum limitations and geographic problems will cripple the network.
Conroy took a swing at the title holder, denouncing the network as “a dog product” and swore to crush the OPEL deal if Labor won government and the deal was not formalized.
He questioned the lack of guarantees imposed on the OPEL deal, including coverage and delivery, and pointed to existing wireless networks such as Telstra Next G which is subject to government conditions.
The blow was easily defended as Coonan signed off the deal in September and announced network construction by June 2009.
A powerful counter punch knocked Conroy off balance as the minister locked-down the A$2 million communications fund, effectively denying him his FttN nest egg of government coffers.
The bill restricted a Labor government to spending only the interest earned from the fund’s investments – up to A$400 million every three years.
Both fighters tried to punch holes through each other’s infamous broadband coverage maps, with favorites including problems with WiMax spectrum availability and geography for the OPEL network, and range limitations and soaring prices of up to A$10 billion for the fibre-optic proposals.
But shadow Minister Conroy admitted the OPEL network he vehemently opposed could be used to deliver broadband to remote Australia, beyond the economic reach of Labor’s FttN.