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Fletcher flags telco red tape reduction

Australian Parliamentary Secretary for Communications Paul Fletcher has indicated that the government will scale back the amount of regulation in the telecommunications industry.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Parliamentary Secretary for Communications Paul Fletcher has said that he will draw on his industry experience from his time at Optus in seeking to slash the amount of regulation in the telecommunications sector.

Image: Paul Fletcher

The Australian government is currently conducting a Commission of Audit, looking at the performance and role of the government, and how it can be improved.

The commission is due to report to government next month, and has been accepting submissions from a range of industries, organisations, and the public. Telstra CEO David Thodey indicated in January that the company had made a submission as part of the review, looking for the government to scale back some regulation in the telecommunications industry.

"We think there's a certain amount of unnecessary red tape that doesn't really serve any great value to regulators, the government, or ourselves," he said.

"We think there are some good savings we can realise and they can realise."

The Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) lobby group — of which Telstra is a member — also outlined in its submission that it believes there is a lot of regulatory duplication.

"The need for an industry-specific government authority such as Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is unclear, given its responsibilities could be discharged by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and Department of Communications and under the Australia Consumer Law," the AIIA said.

In a speech at the Tech Leaders conference in Queensland today, Fletcher said that the Abbott government is aiming to reduce red tape across the board, and this would include the Communications portfolio. He said much of the burdensome regulation came from the Telecommunications Act, which was relatively outdated.

"You've got a regulatory regime in telecommunications, which goes back to July 1, 1997, which was when [the Act] took effect, and you've had a series of encrustations and iterations of regulation on top of what was then set out in 1996-97," he said. "So it is really important to sit down and have a systemic look at that and identify where there are opportunities for efficiencies."

Fletcher, who until taking the seat of Bradfield in a by-election in 2009 had spent eight years at Optus, said he would also be bringing his own knowledge from his time with the telco to the table.

"I personally have some significant views on [regulation], having been the head of regulator for a big telco for a number of years," he said.

"Malcolm Turnbull has some strong views on it given his industry experience, and together we are confident we will be able to deliver a lightening of the regulatory burden in the communications sector."

It comes as the independent cost-benefit analysis review panel — appointed by Turnbull to look into Australia's broadband and the National Broadband Network (NBN) — last week released a framing paper to the telecommunications industry, seeking views on the ideal regulatory environment for the industry.

While the AIIA questioned the role of the ACMA, the independent panel said it is "unusual" for a "generalist" regulator like the ACCC to be responsible for telecommunications regulatory issues. As a result, as part of a number of questions about the regulatory environment for the NBN, and the industry in general, it has asked telecommunications companies to provide their views on the appropriateness for the ACCC to continue to regulate the telecommunications sector.

Fletcher's speech today broadly focused on what he saw as the failure of the former Labor government around the NBN project and what the former government had sought to achieve by embarking on the infrastructure-building project.

Fletcher echoed recent criticism from Turnbull over the former government's handling of the interim satellite service and its overall lack of capacity, which has reduced the adequacy of the service in recent months. It is understood that the government plans to expand the capacity on the interim services for existing customers, but Fletcher today would not confirm the plans. He said that although the Coalition was critical of the former government's "Rolls Royce" plan to launch two brand new satellites in 2015, it is something that the government would now follow through on.

"The choice of technology, the notion that in the most remote areas, satellite is the most sensible economic choice and that in intermediate areas wireless becomes the most sensible choice, that is an uncontested approach," he said.

"We have raised a number of questions about the way that strategy was implemented. For example, was it wise to decide government would own and operate its satellites? An alternative strategy would possibly have been to go out to the private sector.

"That being said, we are where we are on the satellites, and therefore our challenge is to proceed to implementation as efficiently as possible."

Josh Taylor travelled to Sanctuary Cove as a guest of Media Connect.

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