NBN panel didn't discuss $43bn NBN ROI

Shadow Communications Minister Nick Minchin has attacked the government over reports that the expert panel didn't give any advice on the viability of its $43 billion fibre-to-the-home plan.

update Shadow Communications Minister Nick Minchin has attacked the government over reports that the expert panel didn't give any advice on the viability of its $43 billion fibre-to-the-home plan.

Nick Minchin
(Credit: Suzanne Tindal/ZDNet.com.au)

The Age reported this morning that expert panel member Rod Tucker, Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne and research director at the ARC Special Research Centre for Ultra-Broadband Information Networks, said that the government had not asked for advice on the financial validity of the network.

"I just want to make one thing clear: the panel of experts was never asked to and didn't make any judgement call on the issue of investment for a fibre-to-the-home network," the Age reported Tucker as saying.

A spokesperson for Conroy today confirmed that the panel did not consider costing for the $43 billion National Broadband Network. Costing was instead carried out by government agencies, based on advice from technical advisors, according to the spokesperson.

The panel did, however, encourage the government to invest in the technology for a "long-term national broadband solution", the spokesperson said, adding that the government had also received advice on the technical suitability of fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) from other "high-level sources".

"The overwhelmingly strong view of this advice was that FTTP is the technically superior broadband solution," the spokesperson said.

In his original press release terminating the fibre-to-the-node project and announcing the new $43 billion plan in early April, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said that the government's announcement was informed by expert advice.

"Obviously right now we are dealing with a capital constrained world. But we have acted on the advice of an expert panel, containing within it the Secretary of the Treasury, expert advice also from the ACCC about this thing being the right way to go," Rudd said at a press conference on the same day.

Minchin said that Tucker's words had confirmed that Communications Minister Stephen Conroy's $43 billion broadband plan was based on shaky foundations. He has previously voiced scepticism as to whether Treasury Secretary Ken Henry, who also sat on the panel, had given the fibre plan his stamp.

"It has now been confirmed that Senator Conroy has no idea whether this project will be commercially viable or not, yet he has arrogantly dismissed the need for any cost benefit analysis," Minchin said.

Minchin pushed again for the public release of the expert panel report, which as yet has remained unpublished apart from an extract since Conroy claims the document is commercial in confidence.

"Now that the panel members themselves are at direct odds with the government about the advice they provided, there is an even greater onus on Senator Conroy to release the report. What is he trying to hide?" Minchin said.

Senator Minchin yesterday submitted a freedom of information request in an attempt to secure the release of the panel's advice, as well as the regulatory reform paper submitted to the government by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. The government has already turned down one freedom of information request by Tech Wired.

Tucker's office did not respond to a request for comment.