Communications Minister Stephen Conroy told Senate Estimates last night that he would be meeting with Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett very shortly to discuss the commercial structure of the NBN in the state, amid criticism from the Opposition that a planned joint venture with state government-owned utility Aurora Energy has not eventuated.
(Credit: NBN Co)
The Tasmanian leg of the NBN was originally planned to operate as a joint venture with Aurora, which has previously been involved in other government telecommunications projects in the state, but in December last year NBN Tasmania chief executive Doug Campbell said Aurora was acting as the company's "agent".
"Negotiations over the joint venture were slowing down the construction aspect," Campbell said at the time, noting that the talks would continue later. Currently, NBN Tasmania operates as a 100 per cent subsidiary of the larger national NBN Co.
"I'm seeing the premier of Tasmania very shortly to have some discussion about it," Conroy told a Senate Estimates Committee in Canberra last night, in response to pointed questions about the matter from Liberal Senator Mary Jo Fisher.
Conroy said Aurora was a "separate company" contracted to NBN Co, and that the NBN roll-out in Tasmania would be consistent with the national roll-out, including the same operational and business support systems. He said the focus had been on rolling out the NBN in Tasmania.
"NBN Tasmania is a 100 per cent subsidiary, we work absolutely hand in glove, as you would expect us to," said NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley.
Fisher asked whether NBN Co's board had sought to bring NBN Tasmania "to heel", by excluding Aurora as an agent to NBN Co. "Not that I'm aware of, and by the look on Mr Quigley's face, I don't think so," said Conroy. "Aurora is a separate company it contracts to NBN Co."
"Yes, minister," said Fisher. "Because the JV [joint venture] hasn't happened yet?"
"Correct," Conroy replied. "Nobody has ever suggested that it would be excluded from applying to be included as a contractor."
Quigley said he wasn't at liberty to discuss whether NBN Co's board had discussed the matter, but that Aurora had been signed up as NBN Co's agent in Tasmania.
When questioned about Conroy's revelation in August that the Tasmanian NBN roll-out was running 10 per cent under budget, Conroy and Quigley were reluctant to reveal the exact figures that the budget was running at. Conroy told the estimates hearing that revealing the budget allocation for the Tasmanian NBN roll-out to companies vying for contracts wouldn't allow taxpayers to get the most value for money in the tender processes.
Conroy also provided a range of other tidbits of information in relation to the NBN roll-out and the associated company in the committee hearing. For example, he noted that legislation associated with the break-up of Telstra and enhanced competitive guards on the telecommunications industry were slated to hit parliament today after it went through the Labor caucus yesterday.
The communications minister also again committed to releasing some aspects of NBN Co's upcoming business case. Quigley said he will present the case to the NBN Co board this Friday. Conroy said Quigley will then brief his Labor cabinet colleagues next week, with parts of the case made public shortly after.
"A whole range of information will be made available, I'm sure you'll be very satisfied," said Conroy. He said some parts of the business case may not be made public because it could be commercially sensitive or potentially be reverse-engineered.
Fisher described this partial release as the plan with bits "blacked out" or having taken place after an editorial review of the content by Conroy.
NBN Co's Quigley confirmed NBN Co was looking at the 2.3GHz spectrum as one of the ranges the company was looking at for its fixed wireless solution where fibre won't be available, as long as that range of spectrum was available for use. Asked about the 700MHz spectrum, Conroy said the range wouldn't be available unless NBN chose to bid for it in the government's planned auction, but he said that was unlikely.