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National Broadband Network: What’s next?

by Staff Writers •
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Almost everybody was caught by surprise as the detail of the Government's NBN strategy unfolded. Some commentators have seen it as a visionary piece of core national infrastructure, while others have seen it as just be a headline grabbing strategy to overshadow a failed tender process.

In reality, these perspectives no longer now matter. Evidence of the importance of the Government’s National Broadband Network (NBN), was that the announcement was made jointly by the Prime Minister, the Treasurer, the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Broadband.

As the largest infrastructure project in Australia’s history, there must be a whole-of-government approach to its planning and implementation. The states also have a key role to play and, in any case, will be actively positioning their existing networks as an equity contribution to the NBN company. All this will entail an interesting balancing act of government interests around policy, equity and ownership, and more general telecommunications regulation.

The Prime Minister and his three colleagues will need to remain engaged as the project unfolds. Politics, from Federal-State relations through to the competitive and regulatory environment will remain central to the success of the NBN…not to mention the significant challenge of funding and establishing the NBN corporate vehicle.

There’s been a huge amount of press coverage in the two weeks since the NBN announcement, including speculation about how the project will be rolled out, However, the level of media coverage is no real indicator of what’s happening at the administrative level. Typically, within the agencies responsible, the administration wheels of change move slowly.

Most of the commentary since the announcement has been about political issues. The big untold story of great interest to the ICT industry is how the project will unfold administratively. There are key questions to be answered:

  • Who will lead the critical initial stages of the project?
  • How will separation between policy, ownership and regulation be accomplished?
  • What equity arrangements might be established between those with commercial and those with public infrastructure? How will the FttP technology affect the position of incumbents such as Telstra and Optus?

Lobbyists will be thick on the ground, attempting to influence the passage of the legislation, and the structure of the NBN entity, and the associated administrative arrangements.

The Federal Government has announced it will initially own and maintain a majority stake in the NBN provider, but it’s not clear what type of entity is envisaged, and what elements of the construction, operation, management and regulation of the new network it will be involved in. A key question that must be answered in the next few weeks is where primary responsibility for driving the NBN forward will lie. In the past, the role of DBCDE would have been crucial, but it could be perceived to be in a difficult position with conflicting roles as nominal owner, policy-maker and regulator.

Other agencies will also be considering their positions in view of the NBN announcement. Availability of this high speed network will make possible a range of new online government services, and all agencies will be reassessing their e-strategies and service delivery arrangements.

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