Outgoing former Howard Government Minister for Communications, Helen Coonan, has used her valedictory speech in the Senate to take a swipe at Labor's National Broadband Network (NBN) project, saying that the OPEL project would already be delivering fast broadband to regional Australians today.
"It is indefensible that Australians in rural and remote areas have been denied the benefits of fast, affordable broadband that would have been available to them for the past three years under the OPEL network. OPEL was a part of my vision in 2006 to meet the needs of rural and regional Australia and it remains relevant today," Coonan said yesterday. "Sacrificing OPEL on the altar of the costly NBN experiment has meant only a handful of people in regional Australia have taken up the service thus far."
The OPEL plan was killed off in early 2008 by the newly installed Labor government in favour of its own fibre-to-the-home project that ultimately became the NBN. Recently, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy described Coonan's $1 billion OPEL wireless vision as a "dog that got put down".
Coonan rose in the Senate yesterday to announce her retirement, saying that after 15 years in the parliament it was time to move on. Coonan admitted that her time as communications minister from July 2004 until the Howard Government was voted out in November 2007 had been one of the most challenging points in her parliamentary career.
"In the vast Communications portfolio I inherited [there were] many policy challenges including some major unfinished business; to get legislation passed to enable completion of the sale of Telstra and to reform media regulation that had been in place, virtually untouched, for over 20 years," she said.
"This was when rapid advances in technology were and still are transforming the media landscape, making existing regulatory settings of converged platforms, with global reach, increasingly redundant."
Although she admitted she had sympathy for any minister in charge of developing communications policy in such a changing environment, she warned that this environment is exactly the reason why the government should not be locking Australians into a single technology — fibre — pointing to the example of the recent US research for Data In, Data Out (DIDO) wireless technology, which promises wireless speeds up to 1000 times faster than those offered today.
"There are enormous hazards inherent in picking one dominant technology, fibre to the home, for a new ubiquitous network, when all the risk is borne by taxpayers who will likely be left with a sub-optimal network when something more efficient comes along, as it surely will over a 10-year roll-out," she said.
Coonan put the government investment figure for the NBN at between $50 and $80 billion, despite the cost of the network being put at $35.9 billion, with government investment estimated at $27.1 billion. She then questioned whether this investment would guarantee a future-proof network.
The senator added that while there was bipartisan agreement that all Australians should all have access to fast, affordable broadband, and said she would like to see broadband included in the telephone guarantee already offered by government, currently provided by Telstra.
"I, for one, consider that this basic guarantee should be provided in the Universal Service Obligation [USO]. The days when it is sufficient to guarantee Australians a phone on the wall have well and truly been superseded by the need for access to a fast and affordable broadband service regardless of where you live."