Greens to pursue Government on NBN Co FoI exemption

FoI exemption, e-waste implications, and volume pricing major NBN issues for the government as Parliament returns

Two key bills to be reintroduced to Parliament this week could result in increased pressure on the Federal Government to explain a number of decisions it has made on its National Broadband Network (NBN) in the past several months.

The Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures - Access Arrangements) Bill 2010 and the National Broadband Network Companies Bill 2010, expected to be discussed in tandem in the House of Representatives this week, will likely spark debate on the government’s decision to exempt the NBN Co from Freedom of Information (FoI) laws, according to Greens communications spokesperson, Senator Scott Ludlam.

“It will come up, and because that issue has been pretty clearly fore-grounded in the last couple of weeks it may be that this legislation is the place to fix that,” Ludlam told Computerworld Australia. “The FoI one is quite a big one for [the Greens]. We are supportive of the [NBN] being built, but we believe that transparency is the best way to build confidence in it.”

The Greens would also pursue debate on the e-waste implications of using batteries to supply back-up power to the NBN Co equipment attached to every NBN-connected premise, Ludlam said.

“We are interested to know how many batteries [will be needed], who is going to be responsible for maintaining them, where will they go [at the end of their usage lifetime],” he said. "[Roll the number of batteries] across every premise in the country, then every three years, perhaps, you have to swap them out and chuck them away; that is not insignificant. There are some issues there which haven’t been fleshed out at all, or perhaps not very well thought through… ”

The Greens would also seek greater clarity and explanation of the current NBN legislation, which in its current form is believed to allow NBN Co to offer special pricing, via volume discounts, to major players such as Telstra. To date the communications minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, has played down such a possibility, stating in late November that the NBN Co must seek approval from the ACCC prior to offering a volume discount.

"The NBN can’t just go off and give a volume discount to anybody or make new pricing arrangements,” he said at the time. “[NBN Co chief executive Mike] Quigley has said that the policy of the company is not to give volume discounts. So there is both Mr Quigley on the record and if you read the relevant legislation it is very specific: it can only be done if the ACCC gives it the tick.”

The opposition also intends to highlight specific aspects of NBN legislation this week, with Liberal member for Bradfield, Paul Fletcher, pointing to proposed anti-cherry picking clauses as a key cause for concern.

“For two decades telecommunications policy in Australia has been designed to encourage competitive entry and to encourage facilities-base competition,” he said ahead of Parliament's resumption this week.

“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.”

Several inquiries to be put forward to the Environment and Communications References Committee, established by the Greens and the opposition as a means of parliamentary oversight of the NBN, would likely begin shortly, Ludlam said. The committee is charged with examining issues such as the cost of establishing and operating the NBN, the impacts of the project on Government finances, and the NBN business model.

Ludlam said the Greens would oppose the opposition’s proposal to cut funding to the NBN in order to help fund the rebuilding of flood-affected Queensland.

“Australia needs to… realise we will have to deal with disasters of this scale, and worse, probably for the rest of our lives. We have taken the climate outside of the boundaries we have known… so if, every time we have a natural disaster on the scale of the floods, we take funding out of essential infrastructure we are setting a very uneasy precedent.”

Follow Tim Lohman on Twitter: @tlohman

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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Tags Senator Stephen ConroyNational Broadband Network (NBN)foiSenator Scott Ludlam

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