Govt may fund new bush broadband network

Summary:The federal government is considering using some of its AU$3 billion Connect Australia package to aid in the development of a broadband access network in regional Australia.

The federal government is considering using some of its AU$3 billion Connect Australia package to aid in the development of a broadband access network in regional Australia.

      Helen Coonan
Senator Helen Coonan
Announcing the move at the annual conference of the Australian Telecommunications Users Group in Sydney this morning, Communications Minister Senator Helen Coonan said it could represent a departure from the per-customer funding previously allocated under the Higher Bandwidth Incentive Scheme (HiBIS), which concluded in December.

Coonan said she was looking at ways in which the AU$878 million Broadband Connect program, which is HiBIS' successor and allocated from the Connect Australia funds, could evolve from the old model.

"I am considering setting aside a large part of the funding to stimulate the development of a competitive wholesale access network in regional Australia that will provide a broad basis for ongoing infrastructure-based competition in regional Australia," she said.

"Government funding support for such infrastructure would contain some basic requirements, including guaranteed wholesale access for service providers at fair competitive prices, and a key focus on providing full access where regional terrestial coverage is not complete."

She noted any new network would not replicate the exact coverage or lack thereof of Telstra's existing rural fixed broadband network.

Coonan said she expected speeds would far exceed based ADSL speeds of 256Kbps.

A consortium approach composed of multiple parties is likely to find favour with the minister.

"Already we have seen some partnering on the rollout of next generation infrastructure," she said, referring to partnerships between Optus and Vodafone, Telstra and Hutchison in rolling out third-generation (3G) mobile networks.

"Elsewhere, Soul Converged Communications has partnered with Country Energy to lay fibre as part of its whole of government broadband contract in NSW," she said.

The minister requested expressions of interest before the final call for applications under the expanded Broadband Connect scheme would be made.

"This will be a call for industry to express its willingness to be part of this vision, and to put forward well developed ideas about what could be achieved with this funding," she said.

She encouraged industry to look at the Connect Australia package as a broad package rather than separate programs, as there were "obvious synergies" between the different packages of funding.

The Connect Australia funds are divided up into four packages dealing with mobile services, new regional clever networks, broadband and indigenous communications.

Senator Coonan said she would announce further details on Connect Australia in coming months and have finalised guidelines out "well and truly before 1 July 2006".

In conjunction with the new Broadband Connect guidelines, Senator Coonan also released the final guidelines for the AU$50 million metropolitan aspect of Broadband Connect.

A provisional Metro Broadband Connect register has started operating from today to enable customers to identify service providers and indicate their interest in receiving a subsidised broadband service.

The program is aimed at fixing "blackspots" in city areas where broadband is not available.

The Australian Labor Party's communications spokesperson Senator Stephen Conroy spoke immediately after Senator Coonan at the conference, but did not address her comments on how the Connect Australia funding would be used.

The complete text of Senator Coonan's speech this morning can be found at her department's Web site here.

Topics: Government : AU

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