As Federal Parliament returns in 2011, the opposition is set to challenge legislation that could prevent effective wholesale competition under the National Broadband Network (NBN).
Specific clauses in the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures - Access Arrangements) Bill 2010 seek to prevent fibre providers other than wholesaler NBN Co from upgrading or building fibre in only the most lucrative areas; or “cherry picking” customers. Under the legislation, fibre providers would be required to provide open wholesale access to all seekers.
The legislative elements have been highlighted by the Liberal party as a key point for opposition as it is reintroduced to Parliament this week.
Liberal member for Bradfield and former regulatory affairs director for Optus, Paul Fletcher, described the bill as “part of a scheme to effectively buttress or underpin a fundamentally flawed plan”.
“For two decades telecommunications policy in Australia has been designed to encourage competitive entry and to encourage facilities-base competition,” he told Computerworld Australia.
“What we now have a is a completely reversal of that policy with a brand new government-owned network and everybody else discouraged from building networks, and they have legislatively-authorised barriers put in their way. For everybody who’s a support of competition, that’s a very bad approach.”
Fletcher wouldn’t reveal amendments planned by the opposition to the bill, or the extent of negotiations with crossbench MPs to gain support on the topic, but said the opposition would continue to seek for more competitive access arrangements.
“We think the notion of legislating to put lead in the saddlebags of new entrants is very very poor policy,” he said.
The Labor Government will also reintroduce another key piece of legislation, the National Broadband Network Companies Bill 2010, which incorporates NBN Co as a government-owned enterprise. While it restricts the company as a wholesale-only operator, consternation remains over some clauses which could allow the network operator to provide retail services directly to end-users in some cases.
Filter debate dug up
Fletcher also renewed calls for communications minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, to scrap plans to introduce a mandatory ISP-level internet filter for refused classifications material.
A hearing held in Adelaide last week as part of a select committee inquiry into cybersafety found little support for the filter, with Associate Professor Marilyn Campbell of the Australian University Cyberbulling Research Alliance arguing that the filter would not stop cyberbulling as intentioned.
“In my opinion, the filter will stop young children perhaps accessing pornography," she said. "It will not stop paedophilia and it will not stop cyberbullying because they are relationship problems that you cannot filter out."
Fletcher highlighted the committee hearing as an example of waning support for the proposal.
“If there was strong community support for Labor’s mandatory internet filtering proposal you would have expected that to be reflect in the composition of witnesses coming forward to appear before the inquiry,” he said.
Introduction of legislation for the filter has been delayed by an inquiry into the scope of refused classifications by the Classification Board, expected to be completed sometime this year. Optus, Telstra and iPrimus agreed to establish an internet filter only blocking access to child pornography, which is expected to be implemented by the middle of this year.
Fletcher said the Classification Board’s inquiry was a delaying mechanism for the election.
“What we ought to see Senator Conroy do is admit publicly that this policy has no support and formally abandon it, because there’s been great uncertainty hanging over the heads of industry,” he said.
In the meantime, Conroy has made no indications of reviving the filter debate in the immediate term.
“It is very difficult to predict the Byzantine workings of Senator Conroy’s political mind,” Fletcher said.
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