On 21 August the future of the Australian telecommunications industry is likely to be decided when the country goes to the polls.
If Julia Gillard can return the Labor party to power, the National Broadband Network (NBN) will go ahead. If opposition leader Tony Abbott claims victory for the Liberal party the NBN may be tossed out, or at least scaled back significantly. The Liberals are planning to release a broadband policy; in its place on the party's website is a series of documented political attacks on the exisiting NBN scheme.
For telco-watchers who occasionally glance across the Tasman, the NBN appears to have taken the entire three-year Labor term to get started. The initial $4.7 billion plan was scrapped when Telstra thumbed its nose at the scheme. But rather than scale down its proposal, the government hit back with a fibre to the home proposal that had an eye-watering price tag of $43 billion.
Labor's broadband policy was a vote-catcher for Kevin Rudd in 2007 when he swept to power, ending the Liberals' 11-year reign. The popularity of broadband was not lost on the opposition party here at the time, with John Key admitting a year out from the election at an industry function that National was watching the broadband debate across the Tasman, and that broadband access was a major issue for the public, ranking only behind the cost of housing.
Then, six months out from the election, Key made one of his few concrete pre-election promises - $1.5 billion for a broadband network. Two years into its term, National has created a special government agency in the form of Crown Fibre Holdings, an Invitation To Participate has been issued and commercial negotiations are proceeding in secret.
Indeed, apart from the Prime Minister's suggestion that Huawei might play a role in the UFB after a recent trade visit to China, he's been decidely muted on the topic of late. Yesterday in his address to the National Party Conference, citing his government's achievements, it barely rated a mention: "We've put money aside for rolling out ultra-fast broadband across the country," was all the Prime Minister said.
Followed by: "Another important aspect of our economic plan is cutting red tape and regulation. We're searching in all areas of Government to find places where overly-restrictive regulations are getting in the way of doing business. That has already resulted in changes. There are more to come."
Now that might give those hoping for a pro-regulation decision from ICT Minister Steven Joyce on Mobile Termination Rates some pause for thought.