The approval of the structural separation of Telstra means the government can go ahead with the roll-out of the National Broadband Network (NBN), offering genuine competition in telecommunications, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) today approved the separation. The undertaking provides measures while the National Broadband Network is rolling out to ensure existing fixed-line services are supplied to wholesale customers on the same terms as they are supplied to Telstra's retail arm.
"There can be genuine competition in telecommunications from today on," Gillard told reporters in Canberra. "We now have the funding, the legislation and the regulatory approval we need for the roll-out of the National Broadband Network."
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said the wait for the ACCC approval had been the greatest delay in the NBN roll-out, putting it back months, since it was one of the last hurdles that needed to be overcome before the definitive agreement between Telstra and the National Broadband Network Company — which sees NBN Co lease Telstra's ducts and Telstra move its customers onto the NBN — could be signed. The agreement was supposed to have been signed in June last year.
"The start date of the roll-out has moved forward by eight months," Conroy said.
Now things could begin in earnest, with Conroy saying that a new corporate plan would be released in coming months that would outline the revised plan for the roll-out.
"We've received the draft," he said. "We're in discussions."
The last corporate plan had been released in 2010 and depended on the Telstra-NBN Co deal being signed sooner.
NBN Co has already announced its 12-month fibre roll-out schedule, which will see construction underway or completed for 758,000 Australian households, businesses and public facilities by December this year. Conroy said that NBN Co already had the information it required from Telstra for the areas currently under construction, but that the agreement would allow NBN Co to ramp up the roll-out.
NBN Co said it would soon be announcing plans for an escalated build.
"The Definitive Agreement unlocks the full potential of the deal and gives us the certainty we need to finalise our three-year plan and continue with confidence the ongoing acceleration of this monumental project," NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley said in a statement.
"With service providers responsible for over 95 per cent of the retail market signed as NBN customers, with major supply and construction contracts in place, and now the Telstra agreement close to execution, we are looking forward to ramping up the roll-out, which is designed to provide high-speed broadband access to all Australians."
Optus welcomed the ACCC's decision, praising the commission for taking the time out to make sure the undertaking would deliver a level playing field as the NBN rolled out.
"Acceptance of the SSU is an important milestone in the regulatory reform agenda ... The focus must now turn on addressing any other outstanding policy issues so that Australia has the right regulatory settings in place to deliver real choice and competition to consumers and businesses as we transition to the NBN," Optus general manager of Interconnect and Economic Regulation, Andrew Sheridan, said in a statement.
The Greens also welcomed the ACCC's decision, calling it "one of the last big pieces of the NBN puzzle to fall into place".
"Tony Abbott has a big decision to make now. As the scale of the NBN's network expands into regional areas across the country, he should abandon his destructive opposition to the project. Who knows — maybe the National Party will finally speak up and support fast telecommunications for regional Australia," Greens communications spokesperson Scott Ludlam said in a statement.
"Eyes will now turn to NBN Co's three-year roll-out plan. I hope it's an ambitious one, to make up for lost time."
Conroy also turned eyes to the Coalition's broadband policies, saying that the Coalition's fibre-to-the-node option would end up costing "billions of billions of dollars" as the party would have to get Telstra on board, without the leverage of Labor's wireless spectrum threat.
He said that if Opposition Leader Tony Abbott stuck with Labor's plan, it would be much simpler.
"If we stick with this policy it's done," he said.
"If we go back ... then you end up having to renegotiate the whole thing and there's no reason for Telstra to agree to this."
Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull was quick to reply on his blog.
"Just watching Stephen Conroy's press conference, I see that he is claiming that were the NBN to be redesigned so that the broadband upgrade in built-up areas was effected as a fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) design this would mean there could be no structural separation of Telstra," he said.
"That assertion is absurd. A FTTN redesign would see NBN Co acquire the copper loop on the customer premises' side of the node. The service provided would be the same layer 2 service as if the node was located in the customer's premises (FTTP)."
He said that the Coalition supported the structural separation of Telstra, but believed that upgrading broadband for the nation should be done in a cost-effective manner that promoted competition and lower plan prices.
Many companies have released commercial plans for the NBN, with Telstra releasing its own plans this week. It announced that it would charge between $80 and $150 a month for broadband-and-voice bundles, for a minimum of two years.
Conroy said today that Telstra had "more plans to come" and the announcement was for the telco's top-of-the-range plans.