Queensland celebrates telecoms deregulation with more madness

As Australia contemplates its first full week of telecommunications deregulation, at least one entity - the Queensland government - seems determined to prove it can behave just as strangely in the new telecoms environment as the old. A California-owned cable operator says it has been put in 'an outrageous situation' by the state government's refusal to allow it access to power poles - in contravention of the government's own IT policy. The company which was allowed access never actually strung any cable. And now Optus has pinched A$35 million of state business from Telstra, under controversial circumstances.

As Australia contemplates its first full week of telecommunications deregulation, at least one entity - the Queensland government - seems determined to prove it can behave just as strangely in a the new telecoms environment as the old

A California-owned cable operator says it has been put in "an outrageous situation" by the state government's refusal to allow it access to power poles - in contravention of the government's own IT policy - and Optus has pinched A$35 million of state business from Telstra, under controversial circumstances.

The cable company, Northgate communications is mounting an extraordinary attack on the Queensland Government over a frustrated infrastructure bid, going public about its failure to gain access rights to power poles controlled by a Queensland government-owned enterprise.

Fred Buddmyer, Northgate executive director, says an offer to cable poles in regional centers, free of cost to the taxpayer, is being ignored in contravention of the government's own information technology and telecommunications policies.

"We've been told to get lost by the Queensland government. As far as this company is concerned, Queensland is closed for business. It is an outrageous situation.

Northgate's parent company is a California cable TV operator. Its Australian strategy for delivering broadband communications and low-cost telephony services to regional centers is producing results and winning plaudits in southern States. But not in Queensland.

In 1995, Northgate unsuccessfully tendered for access to power poles controlled by the Queensland Transmission and Supply Corp. (QTSC), an entity in which the Treasury and Department of Mines and Energy are stakeholders.

The company that won the tender, Queensland Cable Ltd., failed to string any cable before its letter of intent expired last December, according to Buddmyer. QTSC officials agree no cable has been strung. However, they say they are continuing contract talks with AAP Telecommunications (AAPT), which bought QCL about the time Buddmyer claims the deadline ran out.

QTSC sources deny December was a deadline but declined to divulge the actual date. An AAPT spokesman refused to comment.

Northgate is targeting regional centers in Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia with broadband communications systems that deliver competitive telephony service, high-speed data communications and cable TV. It has an operational system in Ballarat, Victoria, which offers cable customers free local phone calls and untimed STD calls to Melbourne for $1, Buddmyer says.

Meanwhile, controversial circumstances, Optus Communications has scooped the Queensland government's A$35 million (US$26 million) annual STD business away from Telstra. The coup is wrapped up inside a contract which Optus won to manage the state government's telecommunications services. The 12-month contract calls for Optus to facilities manage services for 80,000 devices, including phones and data terminals.

The state government expects the contract with Optus to pare its annual A$100 million-plus telecomms bill by $7 million, says Public Works and Housing Minister David Watson - but the large savings "are dependent on the government being able to switch all its long-distance traffic between suppliers," he says.

A spokesman for the minister confirms that means the government would move all its long-distance business to Optus from Telstra.

"Optus has offered significantly lower rates for long-distance traffic, and we want to take advantage of that," the spokesman says.

The government would "definitely" switch half its long-distance lines over to Optus at once, he sysd. The other half are connected through Telstra's Spectrum services for which Optus does not have an immediate match. It is understood the government enjoyed STD discounts of up to 40 percent from Telstra. Long-distance business was not a component of the SunNet program, which the Optus contract is replacing. In effect, the government is switching its STD business without calling for tender bids - a tactic which may leave it vulnerable to criticism.

But controversy is nothing new for the government's communications arrangements. Billing disputes which have escalated into litigation between the government, Pacific Star and Telstra dogged SunNet for much of its five-year life and a project to install email services for 40,000 state government employees has become a disaster for Access One.

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