Opposition calls for separation, likens NBN process to Mugabe politics

Opposition backs structural separation of NBN proponent, launches metaphor-filled attack on government.

Shadow Communications Minister Bruce Billson yesterday called on the nation’s telecommunications industry to adopt a less combative and more collaborative approach to the NBN debate. He also told attendees at the 2008 Australian Telecommunications Summit that the opposition backed the call for a structurally separate NBN proponent.

Presenting “National broadband network – an opposition’s perspective”, Billson began by likening Senator Conroy’s handling of the NBN process to the bumbling TV secret agent Maxwell Smart trying to convince the nation of labour’s “bold vision” with his infamous “would you believe...” statements. He compared Conroy’s often criticised gag order to the “cone of silence” Max uses to talk with the Chief in secret.

“I think the gag is very sad, very counter-intuitive. Why gag a process that requires the best of all of us in this room. This is not a straightforward challenge, the stakes are very high…we really need to make sure the people’s voices are heard, yet in this Mugabe-esque process you’ve got this gag where those who know most about what is going on and what the consequences might mean aren’t actually able to articulate that view,” he said.

He accused the government of downgrading its pre-election NBN promises to vague ambitions, secretly discussed in the dark of a closed room without the input of national and consumer interest groups.

“I'm urging the government to get smart, to lift that cone of silence and replace this self-inflicted chaos and control with a more collaborative and considered approach. We’ve seen competition in combative mode in part get us to where we are now, I think there is a time for us to embrace a more collaborative approach, and that time is now.”

Billson argued that the combative approach, which has seen fixed line broadband innovation and competition in Australia stymied through years of access disputes between Telstra and the rest of the industry, has delivered outcomes that appeal only to shareholder interests.

“This negotiate, arbitrate, litigate way of doing business – we’re so productive we’ve cut out the first two steps…and there’s already that air [of litigation] around this next-generation process…the process we’re involved in now would actually lead to the minister being described more accurately as the minister against broadband rather than the minister for broadband,” he said.

Billson believes Senator Conroy’s attempt to mandate the technology platform of the NBN is misguided and should be left to telecommunications industry experts to decide. Conroy, he argued, should be focusing on the policy objectives of the investment of $4.7 billion of taxpayers' money.

“Why is the government not talking about opportunities for improved services, e-health, e-education, e-commerce, climate abatement measures, smart grids, entertainment opportunities, consumer empowerment, and social networking? These are the public policy motives that should be more clearly articulated.”

The government’s cancellation of the Opel wireless network drew Billson’s ire as he criticized Conroy’s vision of installing a fixed line broadband network that would cover 98 percent of Australia.

“After you get over 92.5 percent [coverage], for every 1 percent after that I’m told you add a billion dollars...[that will lead] to a capex outlay that needs to be recovered, and that cost will be washed across every broadband user…I don’t know how anyone could imagine wireless not being a part of any future strategy for a continent as vast as ours.”

“The reality of that is kids starting secondary school this year could have had their education supported by access to broadband, but on the current pathway we’re on those kids would have left secondary education before they are likely to see anything in the fixed space.”

Tags NBN

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