Conroy, NBN Co and Implementation Study authors called back to Senate hearing

Senate select committee to hold two more hearings, question financial viability of NBN according to Implementation Study

The Senate select committee for the national broadband network (NBN) will call back key stakeholders in the network for another two hearings, according to committee chairman, Senator Ian McDonald.

In two hearings - to be conducted 20 May in Sydney and 5 June in Canberra - the committee will seek to re-address some key questions regarding the network to relevant parties. These include the authors of the NBN Implementation Study from consulting firms KPMG and McKinsey & Company as well as NBN Co chief executive, Mike Quigley, and members of the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy.

Other parties who have previously brought evidence forward - including Optus, Telstra, iiNet and the Internet Society of Australia (ISOC-AU) - will all be invited back to comment on the Implementation Study, as well as any other key aspects of the network. Other relevant parties are welcome to submit a report to the committee.

The committee's final report on the NBN was due for release to the public this week, but was postponed until 17 June due to the implementation study's late release. McDonald told Computerworld Australia that the committee had not yet had an opportunity properly look over the study, which would be a key aspect of its final report.

Instead, the committee plans to release a fourth interim report on 18 May, which will form the basis of the two hearings. This report will feature at least 25 pages worth of comment on the implementation study.

Previous hearings held by the Senate select committee, and chaired by McDonald, have focussed on the exposure draft legislation for the NBN, with several parties raising key concerns about its contents and ramifications. The committee's last encounter with Quigley was particularly confronting, and revealed the Senate's concerns over the network and NBN Co activities.

McDonald told Computerworld Australia that the hearings will provide the committee with the chance to re-ask questions to the department and Quigley which were previously dodged or deferred in light of the Implementation Study.

"Every time we have asked Conroy or the department about this - particularly the financing, the roll-out, the timing - we've always been met with the response 'it will all be revealed in the implementation study'," he said. "It's our suspicion that many of the questions that we asked, to which we've got that answer, are in fact not answered in the implementation study."

The Senator said it had been a similar situation with Quigley.

"Perhaps now that the implementation study is out, Mr Quigley would be more able to answer those questions," he said.

Though the Senate was particularly keen to question Conroy, McDonald said the committee couldn't insist on his appearance. However, he was more than happy to question Conroy, "were he game".

Whether the implementation study's authors would appear at the hearing was also questionable, with McDonald unsure if the government "might find something in their contract to prevent that".

A spokesperson for NBN Co told Computerworld Australia that Quigley would be unlikely to attend either hearing as he would be unavailable on both dates. Senator Conroy's office was contacted, but the spokesperson couldn't confirm if Conroy would speak to the committee.

Along with the ability to clarify some aspects, the Senate hearings will also be an opportunity for the select committee to address some of the report's "obvious inconsistencies."

McDonald questioned the methodology behind the study, in which he said the authors were given the finishing study and told to advise the implementation towards that, rather than providing a clean slate.

Some financial aspects, particularly around access pricing and take-up rate, were also questionable. McDonald compared current Telstra ADSL2+ pricing of between $39 and $49 for a basic 24Mbps package, to the Implementation Study's recommended $30-40 wholesale access pricing for  entry-level 20Mbps services in a competing area.

"Why would i be dealing with someone who is using the NBN rather than someone using what we've got now," he said. "Their assumption that prices will go up 2 per cent per annum defies what's been happening with telecommunications charges over a long period of time now. It just doesn't make sense and that's what we want to have a look at a bit more closely."

The final report's new due date of 17 June is definite according to McDonald, despite two previous extensions.

"Unfortunately, I suspect the government won't have responded by that time," he said. "I think by 17 June, we'll have had a real opportunity to look into the implementation study very carefully, take evidence from experts and be able to form a definitive view not on the implementation study, but how the roll-out of the NBN, if it ever happens, should progress."

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