Fear, uncertainty and delays: The NBN in Tasmania

Future of the NBN rollout on the island making business anxious, senate inquiry hears

Tasmanian business is desperate for certainty over the future of the National Broadband Network rollout in the state, according to witnesses that appeared before a Hobart hearing of the Senate’s Select Committee on the National Broadband Network.

Uncertainty about the meaning of a pre-election commitment by Malcolm Turnbull, now the communications minister, to honour existing contracts relating to the rollout of the broadband network in the state, delays to connecting premises in fibre-ready areas and doubts about the areas that had been prioritised for the rollout were raised.

Read: Digital Tasmania uncertain about Turnbull’s NBN rollout ‘facts’.

The NBN rollout in Tasmania has generated vituperative exchanges between the state’s Labor premier, Lara Giddings, who has called for more certainty about the future of a fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) network, and Turnbull.

The Tasmanian government views the NBN as a “game changer” for the state’s economy, the deputy secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Michael Stevens, told the committee. The state government remains a strong supporter of an FTTP network, he said.

“[A]necdotally our understanding is that the pace has slowed significantly in terms of the rollout” Stevens said.

A key theme of a number of the witnesses at the hearing was concern about the uncertainty surrounding the NBN’s future in Tasmania.

Michael Bailey, CEO of the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that his members were “great supporters of the NBN”, but that some businesses are “unsure as to whether the rollout is going to continue for their area”.

“There’s obviously been a change of government, there’s obviously going to be a bit of uncertainty,” he told the committee.

“And perhaps if there’s one thing I can get across today [it] would be the need to try and remove as much uncertainty as possible from businesses who are hoping that this going to come to their area.

“They’ve been given assurances in the past it will, and again I think that would be really positive.”

The NBN “is a critical piece of infrastructure,” Bailey said.

The CEO of the Local Government Association of Tasmania, Allan Garcia, told the committee that his member councils have also “expressed concern about the future of the NBN”.

“Certainly in Tasmania — with the expectation of Tasmania being a testbed [for the NBN], fully functional, all joined up, [with ] capacity for new ways of doing business, new ways of dealing with health matters, social issues — there was an expectation in local communities, particularly rural communities in the state, that there would be significant benefits.”

A shift away from a primarily FTTP rollout to a mix that includes fibre-to-the-node, as mooted by the strategic review of the network, won’t necessarily eliminate those benefits, he said, but there is “doubt around what it means in terms of the promise that was and the promise that will be”.

“There is still that concern that we don’t know what the future looks like,” he said.

There are concerns that because of delays to the NBN rollout “some towns, some suburbs that might have otherwise been in... the rollout of the fibre may or may not now get that outcome,” he said.

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