Expert panel to pick the winning bid for the fibre backbone

Group ready to accept proposals by the end of March

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has announced a panel of experts to decide who will build Australia's $8 billion Fibre-to-the-Node (FttN) network.

The panel contains six members from industry, regulators and government and is chaired by Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) Secretary Patricia Scott.

Conroy said the panel will issue a request for proposals to build the network at the end of this month but did not announce a deadline.

"The government will formally call for innovative and competitive proposals to roll out the new network with a view to having construction under way by the end of 2008," Conroy said.

"At the same time as it issues the request for proposals, the government will also call for comments on policy and funding initiatives to improve access to affordable broadband in remote areas."

Members include former Australian Communication Authority chairman Tony Shaw alongside Treasury Secretary Dr Ken Hendry, both former members of the previous government's expert task force.

John Wylie, CEO of advisory firm Lazard Carnegie Wylie, joins Allphones chairman Tony Mitchell, University of Melbourne Professor Rod Tucker and University of Adelaide Communications Professor Reg Coutts.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) will provide advice on pricing and regulatory issues through a written submission to the panel. DBCDE recommendations will also be considered.

Shadow communications minister Bruce Billson said the panel must be allowed to support proposals to build the FttN network entirely from private investment.

"Hopefully the expert panel hasn't been simply instructed to shape a response to fit Labor's broadband rhetoric, regardless of sound public policy considerations, or how unnecessarily costly it will be to the taxpayer," Billson said.

"The ACCC and Productivity Commission must not be sidelined to suit Labor's political ambitions in the same way the Minister has sidelined his own department as a source of advice in a 'put in a submission and the panel will make up its own mind' mode."

Conroy also announced an additional $95 million would be added to the Australian Broadband Guarantee to fund metro-comparable broadband in regional areas.