Left party broadband strategies diverge sharply

The Australian Labor Party has pledged to invest as much as A$4.7 billion over five years to build a new high-speed network

The Australian Labor Party’s broadband policy diverged sharply from that of the New Zealand Labour government when it announced plans to invest in a multi-billion nationwide fibre network last week.

Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd has placed broadband squarely on the Australian election agenda with the announcement that Labor will build a new high-speed network. Labor has pledged to invest as much as A$4.7 billion over five years to build the network with a private sector partner making a similar contribution.

Rudd said it would give Australians access to speeds 40 times faster than those available today.

However, in response to entrepreneur Rod Drury’s calls for a similar initiative here, Communications Minister David Cunliffe remains wary of stifling private-industry initiative.

“Given the high returns able to be made on telecommunications, it is appropriate to fund the network from private investment wherever possible,” he said, in a message from Germany, where was attending the CeBIT computer show, sent before the Australian announcements.

“The government should not crowd that out.”

Computerworld made it clear in its questions that Drury sees government only as obtaining funding and this will probably be private money.

“Significant private investment is expected over the next year,” Cunliffe added. “The government is monitoring this closely for gaps and issues.

“We will maintain an active dialogue with industry, and we will always work to ensure that the interests of New Zealanders are upheld.”

To fund the Australian network, Labor will be forced to draw on the $2 billion Communications Fund, set up to improve telecommunications services in rural areas, as well as selling Telstra shares. As part of the announcement, Labor dumped its support for public ownership of Telstra, admitting the Opposition had lost the fight.

Australian Treasurer Peter Costello labelled the broadband plan “economic vandalism” and said it was the most irresponsible economic announcement of the last 11 years.

Drury says he is pleased to see more debate on the question of broadband supply and demand. “I believe the Digital Strategy 2.0 conference talked about by David [Cunliffe] and the [Prime Minister] for late this year will be the time where the issue gets sharp focus. “We’re still waiting for some reaction from the blue team [Telecom]”, Drury adds.

Telecom is conducting a “fundamental review” of its broadband strategy, says a spokeswoman, and will be putting the results in front of the ICT industry in late April. This was signalled in remarks by CEO Theresa Gattung at the company’s second-quarter financial results announcement in February.

Australia’s IT industry was quick to welcome broadband debate by both sides of the political divide, as industry bodies have been actively lobbying for more broadband investment for the past decade.

The Australian Computer Society’s (ACS) CEO, Dennis Furini, says the important point is that equitable and affordable access to broadband is achieved. “How that’s achieved is of secondary importance in our view,” he says.

Describing world class broadband infrastructure as an immediate national priority, Furini says the ACS is calling for 30Gbit/s minimum to every household by 2015.

“Without a consistent, reliable, high speed national broadband infrastructure ... Australia’s economic growth will suffer,” Furini says.

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Tags governmentbroadbandfibre networkAustralian Labor Partycunliffe

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