The federal government expects to soon announce how it will allocate the AU$600 million in funding it has put on the table for bush broadband infrastructure projects.
Various telcos such as Optus, Telstra, Austar, Soul and more have applied in consortiums for the Broadband Connect funding, which is part of the larger AU$1.1 billion Connect Australia package.
"Probity reasons prevent me from giving a comprehensive overview of applications and where we are at, but one thing I can say is that you can be confident that the assessment program is progressing well," Communications Minister Senator Helen Coonan told the annual conference of the Australian Telecommunications Users Group in Sydney this morning.
"I'm looking forward to announcing the outcomes of this AU$600 million Broadband Connect infrastructure funding round over the coming weeks, which will significantly impact the quality and speed of broadband services in this country," the Minister added.
A transcript of Coonan's speech later amended the time frame to "months". The Minister's office was unable to clarify the announcement time frame by press time.
Coonan also stated the AU$162.5 million Broadband Guarantee program -- announced this week and aimed at filling any remaining broadband blackspots in metro or bush areas through individual subscriber subsidies -- would be up and running by April, with program guidelines for Internet service providers to be released at the end of March.
"There will a fast track registration process for registered Broadband Connect and Metro Broadband Connect providers," Coonan said.
Services for all
Coonan also addressed the ongoing debate about the need for a national fibre to the node broadband network. Telstra has put its plans for such a network on hold, while a group of the telco's rivals known as the G9 is still pushing forward with its own proposal.
"I am interested in continuing to talk to both the G9 and Telstra about their fibre to the node proposals," said Coonan. "Clearly we cannot countenance the same inefficiencies that accompanied the duplicated rollout of HFC cable in the 90's."
Coonan said any new network must provide open access to its infrastructure by rival telcos, and would-be providers must publicly name the price at which such access could take place.
"I know both parties have had or are having conversations with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission about their proposals -- I welcome that very much and encourage all parties to continue to work towards a successful outcome," she said. "I will be following the discussions and developments of both proposals with great interest".
Coonan also discussed the contentious matter of the Universal Service Obligation -- a set of rules stipulating Telstra (and potentially, other providers) must provide basic telecommunications services to all Australians. Currently other carriers subsidise Telstra to carry out this duty.
The Minister said the basic structure of the USO was up for review.
"As part of a regular, three yearly review, the government will also need to look at the level of subsidies paid as part of the USO by next year, and it is likely that we will also consider the architecture to ensure that the USO is meeting its objectives in the most effective way," said Coonan, noting the review would not be winding back the rights of consumers in any way.
"I expect that review would commence later this year," she said.