- From: The Australian
- August 12, 2011
THE NBN Co would be given sweeping powers to bypass state and local laws and install broadband infrastructure without the consent of landowners under government proposals that the opposition warns could allow it to override the wishes of local communities and string more overhead fibre from telegraph poles.While the office of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy last night insisted the NBN Co did not intend to install equipment at a consumer's premises until they had placed orders with an internet service provider, there were fears the proposals could see the rights of local residents trampled and fresh warnings that irate residents could rip down overhead NBN cables in their streets.
The proposals also put the government on a collision course with some states, with a spokesman for Victoria's Coalition government last night warning that it would be "very concerned if Labor uses these laws to ride roughshod over any community concerns".
Under plans released yesterday, the NBN Co and operators of any similar superfast broadband networks would be able to bypass state planning laws to connect premises and lay new broadband infrastructure in streets.
The changes allow significantly wider fibre-optic overhead cables to be strung on power poles in streets without the need for state or local planning permission. The plans will also let the NBN Co install equipment in basements and other common spaces in apartment buildings.
Senator Conroy said that if adopted, the changes would simplify the rollout of the NBN and give consumers super-fast broadband sooner.
He said the government understood local community sensitivities and would consult on its draft proposal.
The NBN Co was expected to cause as little disturbance as possible, Senator Conroy said, and there would be processes to resolve any concerns on the part of property owners that were backed up by legal requirements.
The opposition's communications spokesman, Malcolm Turnbull, seized on the proposed new regulations to warn that the proposals would deny local communities their right "to have a say in the preservation of their own environment and local amenity".
He said he feared the aerial rollout of the NBN could be extended, as the NBN Co's corporate plan estimated that increasing this from 10 per cent of houses to 25 per cent would cut the costs of the project by $1.8bn.
"My fear is that as the NBN faces blowouts in both the cost and time taken to complete the project, the overwhelming urge will be to override the wishes and interests of local communities and string fibre overhead," Mr Turnbull said.
The comments come as Optus, Australia's second-largest telecommunications company, demanded a truly level playing field on the NBN and warned that Telstra could get unfair advantages.
Under an $11bn deal with the NBN Co and government, Telstra will be paid to transfer its customers to the new fibre network as its expansive copper network is decommissioned.
The telco will also be paid leasing fees for access to its exchange buildings and its pits and pipes to house NBN infrastructure.
But Optus warned that NBN Co's requirement to lease space in Telstra's exchange buildings to house 111 of the 121 points where retailers will hook into the NBN would give the telco giant an unfair advantage over its competitors.
This means the likes of Optus and AAPT would need to speak directly with Telstra to gain access and install the broadband equipment required to serve customers on the NBN. "We are calling for the separation regime to bring about a truly competitive landscape," Optus chief executive Paul O'Sullivan told The Australian.
"Right now it doesn't because it's not specific about making sure Telstra will treat all competitors who access the interim network in the same way it treats itself.
"Likewise with the NBN, we want to make sure the NBN Co is consistent in treating everyone equal.
"If you want the benefits of high-speed broadband and you want innovation and you want efficiency and good pricing, then you must have a level playing field. If you don't get that, then you get a really bad outcome for competition and customers."
Optus told the competition watchdog in a written submission that "there is scope for Telstra to abuse the process".
Highlighting the benefits to Telstra of its $11bn deal on the NBN, its shares rallied by 5.7 per cent, helping Australia's sharemarket defy the turmoil gripping overseas markets yesterday.
This came after Telstra yesterday delivered a profit result that beat market expectations.
The NBN is expected to pass 12 million premises by the end of a 9 1/2 year build. At its peak, it will pass 6000 premises a day.
In order to streamline the rollout, the government has proposed to extend the definition of "low-impact facilities" in the Telecommunications Act to the NBN, including optical fibre on telegraph poles.
Under the law, facilities deemed to be "low impact" can be installed without being subject to state planning laws, and without the consent of a landowner or occupier.
Facilities installed in private premises require householder consent.
This section of the law was introduced after the public backlash over cabling when pay-TV was introduced in the late 1990s. Under the law, landowners and occupiers must be contacted and can get compensation for financial loss or damage. They can also lodge objections.
The Mayor of Nambucca Shire Council in northeast NSW, Rhonda Hoban, said she was sure any use of overhead cable would upset community residents. "From what I've heard, it's pretty ugly. I think it's difficult for us as a council if we or our community don't get a say in whether we want this cabling or not," she said.
"There are likely to be a number of people in my community who have no desire for the NBN network, who won't feel there's any benefit from it.
"I suspect they'll feel angry they didn't get a say. They are going to have cabling forced upon them for a service they neither want nor feel they need."
But Senator Conroy's office said given the NBN Co would install facilities with the consent of customers, the main benefit of the proposed changes was to "streamline the process across state and territory planning laws".
NBN Co has blamed the previous opt-in system for low take up numbers in some of its first release construction sites on the mainland.