With an election looming, regional broadband has once again found itself at the centre of a political battle -- this time, it's the Northern Territory's turn for a war of words.
Federal Communications Minister Helen Coonan has accused her Northern Territory counterpart of making political capital from a recent broadband funding award, by labelling the grant a side-effect of local government reform.
Under the government's AU$113 million Clever Networks program, an NT broadband infrastructure project, ShiresNet, has been awarded AU$6.4 million.
NT Communications Minister Elliot McAdam said the award is an endorsement of local government reform which has taken place in the region. "A stronger third tier of government will provide the certainty that other level of governments require to invest in the sector ... This is a strong acknowledgement by the Australian government," he said.
Coonan said the decision to award the AU$6.4 million was based on the project's merits and its impact on the local community. "If the same or similar bid had been put forward by local councils under previous Northern Territory local government structures, it too would have been considered and accepted by the Australian government and the same funding awarded. Elliot McAdam's claim to the contrary is very strange," she said in a statement.
The ShiresNet scheme aims to bolster broadband infrastructure in 57 shires in the Northern Territory and lay the foundations for councils to adopt new services including VoIP and videoconferencing. The project will also give local residents Internet access at council offices after hours and provide IT training to citizens.
The Clever Networks plan, first launched in 2006, funds broadband infrastructure and services projects across Australia. Recent awards under the scheme include a AU$2 million broadband network for chronic disease management, a AU$4 million grant for a remote diagnosis system and AU$3.4 million to the Grampians Rural Health Alliance Network for improvements to maternity care technology.
The spat between the two Communications Ministers follows a recent government attempt to drive broadband infrastructure and adoption in some of Australia's remotest areas -- the Broadband Development Network.
The network will see the appointment of broadband project managers who will identify "strategic broadband development priorities" at state and territory level. Broadband project officers will then help communities to implement or develop their plans.
The Broadband Development Network will start life in November 2007 and run until the end of March 2010. Each state and territory will have an opportunity to co-fund a manager, the government said.