Broadband stabs an optic nerve as election looms

Australia gets WiMAX and fibre either way

It's the clash of the communications titans.

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 $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.

The opposition's FttN network is based on Telstra's 2005 proposal which has been fully costed at $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 $1 billion to plug regional broadband black spots.

The smaller providers squabbled with the giants as the then $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 $958 million from the $1.85 billion Broadband Connect program and more than $900 million from OPEL, and promises speeds of 12Mbps for most rural areas by expanding WiMAX infrastructure.

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