Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Australia - A Parliamentary Committee is to scrutinise the NBN plan

[the australian] The Committee being created to scrutinise the taxpayer-funded National Broadband Network will be stacked with Labor MPs and not operate until July.

This has sparked fresh criticism about inadequate scrutiny of the country's biggest infrastructure project.

The committee - promised by Julia Gillard to secure the support of independent senator Nick Xenophon for crucial legislation to end Telstra's market dominance and pave the way for the NBN - will have 16 members, of whom nine will be Labor-nominated. It will be chaired by independent Rob Oakeshott.

It has also emerged that the committee, which can draw on advice from the Productivity Commission, will not start operating until July. This is despite the NBN Co's plans to have started a number of trials in Tasmania and on the mainland by then.

As parliament continued to thrash out the Telstra legislation and debate over the costings of the NBN intensified, Victoria's Labor government vowed that if returned to power in tomorrow's election, it would automatically connect households and businesses in the state to the NBN unless they refused. The state government said it would rapidly implement an "opt-out" model for the network, as this would save money in the future. Tasmania's government has already adopted this approach to shore up the project.

"If someone is running broadband, going to the cost of running broadband down the street, you want to have it connected to homes whether people are using it or not," Victorian Treasurer John Lenders said.

The state would "seek national harmony" with the Gillard government to achieve the plan. The move puts pressure on other states to follow suit.

Meanwhile, debate is raging about the summary of the NBN business case released on Wednesday to secure the support of independent senators for the Telstra legislation.

A coalition of telco companies that includes AAPT claimed the project costs would top $50 billion.

In an open letter to NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley, the Alliance for Affordable Broadband said when interest costs and $13.8bn in payments to Telstra were added to the $35.7bn of upfront capital spending required to roll out the high-speed project, the cost could reach $55.2bn.

The business plan was based on creating a new monopoly, reducing competition and stranding assets, the group said.

Stockbroking analysts said the business plan lacked detail on important information including pricing and rollout schedules.

But the Prime Minister maintained that the total expenditure of the NBN as stated in the business case was $35.7bn, down from earlier estimates of $43bn.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy hit out at the alliance, claiming it represented "almost no customers".

The NBN has dominated parliament this week, with Ms Gillard seizing on a Coalition bid in question time to table photographs of "ugly" NBN cables to label the Liberal Party "Luddites" who were opposed to progress.

This comes amid reports yesterday that in Tasmania the broadband speed being delivered under NBN is slower than promised, with one resident of Midway Point writing to the Hobart Mercury to say he was getting only between 10Mbps and 28Mbps on his 50Mbps plan.

Although senator Nick Xenophon and Family First's Steve Fielding have pledged to support the Telstra bill, ensuring its passage, parliamentarians could be forced to sit for an extra day today so the government can push it through the Senate before the summer break.

The government says its legislation to break Telstra into wholesale and retail arms, which was still being debated in the Senate last night, must be voted on by 3pm today at the latest.

Senator Xenophon implemented yesterday a series of amendments to the Telstra bill to increase the transparency and oversight of the telco's separation and those amendments will be voted on before the legislation is put to a vote.

He defended the composition of the new oversight committee, which mirrors the make-up of the Joint Committee on Public Accounts and Audit.

Senator Xenophon said MPs would be able to participate in the committee and "that was made very clear to me, they can't backtrack on that . . . it will allow for robust debate".

But South Australian Liberal senator Mary Jo Fisher countered that only the 16 elected committee members would be permitted a vote, it would be allowed to set its own terms of reference and politicians would be permitted to give evidence.

"It will be a parade ground for government MPs peddling government propaganda," she said.

The government yesterday also introduced long-awaited legislation setting out the regulatory framework for the NBN known as the National Broadband Network Companies Bill and Access Arrangements bills.

The bills had been amended since earlier drafts and deals cut with crossbench senators and MPs, and now mandates the Productivity Commission to inquire into the impact of privatisation after the rollout is complete.

The government said the bills would ensure wholesale services were delivered on an open and non-discriminatory basis.

But University of NSW consumer law expert Frank Zumbo said he already had "concerns around the issue of price discrimination".

Senator Xenophon said although he had not scrutinised these bills, he would be concerned if there were any potential for price discrimination and said Associate Professor Zumbo's views should be heeded.

These bills are expected to be properly debated next year, despite warnings by Senator Conroy's department that they should be considered time-critical and passed by the end of this month.

The delay in the bills threatens the NBN Co's ability to disclose detail about pricing for the superfast network. The NBN Co wants to put a special access undertaking that relates to its pricing to the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, but not until the bills are passed.

Labor MPs stack NBN group

No comments: