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Govt releases long-awaited broadband policy -

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Govt releases long-awaited broadband policy

Reporter: Michael Brissenden

Some political issues are perennial: tax cuts, interest rates, national security, to name a few.
But when we come to vote this year there will be two others joining the mix of hot button issues.
Climate change is one, broadband the other. And today, months after Labor announced its plan for a
fast national broadband network, the Government presented its own proposal.

Transcript

KERRY O'BRIEN: Some political issues are perennial - tax cuts, interest rates, national security,
to name a few. But when we come to vote this year there'll be two others joining the mix of hot
button issues. Climate change is one, broadband the other.

And today - months after Labor announced its plan for a fast national broadband network - the
government presented its own proposal. Labor's $4.7 billion program would roll out a fibre to the
node network (that is, fibre optic delivery close to the home or business) across the nation.

The Government will deliver a national broadband network, sooner and cheaper than the Labor plan.
Labor says it will be a two-tier system that will disadvantage regional Australia. I'll be talking
with communications minister Helen Coonan in a moment, who of course, has a different view. But
first, political editor Michael Brissenden.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Yes, today, it's the word on everyone's lips. Broadband, that 21st Century
issue, like climate change has become one of the defining political topics of the moment.
Broadband. It's the infrastructure of our era. As important as the telegraph and railways were to
the 19th and 20th Centuries. In the current environment it is also an early 21st century political
weapon.

KEVIN RUDD, OPPOSITION LEADER: Nation building for the 21st Century lies in building a new national
broadband network. It's part of our pathway to the future.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: In March, Kevin Rudd announced Labor's broadband policy, a plan that would see
a so-called fibre-to-the-node system rolled out within reach of 98 per cent of users. A
public-private partnership that would give open access the system to all telecommunications
companies but would see the government retain a 50 per cent equity. The sting is the cost: $4.7
billion. $2 billion and $2.7 billion taken from the future fund. Labor says it's an investment for
the future. The Government says it's a politically driven raid on future prosperity.

PETER COSTELLO: The reason why the Labor party wants to open up the future fund and raid it is the
Labor party wants to treat the future fund as a political vehicle for its own electoral prospects.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The government argues the private sector is ready to move in with a
fibre-to-the-node network, in the cities at least, without spending public money. Today, the
Government put its long awaited broadband alternative on the table. The Government plan will see
open competition for fibre roll-out in the cities and a joint venture with $1 million of public
money for a wireless network in the bush and regional centres, a system called WiMAX.

BROADBAND EXPERT: It uses 5.8 GHz.

JOHN HOWARD: That's an... Optus?

BROADBAND EXPERT: It's a class license spectrum. So everyone is free to use that. Plenty of
spectrum to play in, that's the good part about it.

JOHN HOWARD: Ohhh. That is good.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The Opposition says the Government's plan will result in a two-tiered system
but will disadvantage the bush.

KEVIN RUDD: We have a proposal which will cost up to $4.7 billion in joint partnership with the
private sector to lay out fibre optic to the node to 98 per cent of the country. The difference is
the Government proposes a two-tiered system, a good system for the cities, they say, and a
second-rate system for rural and regional Australia.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: In parliament, the Opposition Leader proclaimed the WiMAX system as unreliable.
Apparently, access and speed can be affected by bad weather and heavy use. Mr Rudd also brandished
a leaked email from the Minister's office that asked for electorate maps and localised information
kits to be made available for a priority list of 40 electorates in time for today's policy
announcement. The 40 electorates were all marginal Coalition seats.

KEVIN RUDD: Prime Minister, how does this leaked email sit with your assurances to the parliament
barely five minutes ago that the Government's handling this matter has been even-handed?

JOHN HOWARD: The announcement I made today, as the Leader of the Opposition knows was very much
about providing services in rural and regional Australia. It is a matter of electoral reality that
the great majority of seats in rural and regional Australia are held by the Coalition, Mr Speaker.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Even though a few of the seats listed on the 40 were actually suburban
marginals like Bonner and Moreton in Brisbane. Obviously, the politics can't be taken out of this.
It is a hot issue with voters wherever they live, and one that is intrinsically linked to our
economic future.

There are now two proposals before the electorate. The Government says it will deliver a broadband
system by 2009, four years ahead of the Labor proposal. The difference is the infrastructure for
regional Australia. Given the political and economic interests that now envelop this debate,
finding anyone to publicly present an unbiased comparison is extremely difficult.

Privately the technical experts say the wireless plan does have limitations and those will grow
over time. Labor's broad fibre-to-the-node network is considered relatively future proof and a
system that can adapt with the technology. Privately, some Nationals also say they do have concerns
about the long-term viability of wireless broadband. Their leader, though, was today enthusiastic
in his embrace of the plan, and the politics.

MICHAEL VAILE, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: So Labor's "fraudband" proposal where they're going to steal
$2 billion from the bush, they're not going to achieve 98 per cent...

SPEAKER: The Member for Kingsford-Smith is warned.

MICHAEL VALE: They're only going to achieve 75 per cent coverage and, Mr Speaker, their "fraudband"
proposal is only going to be completed in 2013. We're going to have ours done in 2009.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The figures and statistics, like the broadband speeds and the fibre coverage,
seem open to a wide array of political interpretation. This is all, of course, driven by a
completely different set of numbers at the moment.

Today, two polls showed Labor was still way out in front of the Government, although there has been
some narrowing of the gap. AC Neilsen has the coalition on 43, up 1 point, and Labor on 57. A few
weeks ago, Newspoll had Labor on 60 per cent. Today the coalition is up 4, and Labor is down to 56
per cent.

WAYNE SWAN, SHADOW TREASURER: I know there's a lot of debate about opinion polls. But just think
about this a minute. The Government threw the kitchen sink at the Labor Party in the last month. So
much so that John Howard reversed his position from annihilation to saying he had the election in
the bag. So over the last few weeks in particular, they've thrown everything at Kevin Rudd.
Everything at Kevin Rudd. We see in these polls today a swing to Labor of 8 or 9 per cent from the
last election.

DAVID JULL, LIBERAL BACKBENCHER: Well, if you go back over history I mean the last two elections
this time out we were 10 per cent behind. It might be a little bit more these days, but you know,
10 per cent, 11 per cent, what's the difference?

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Quite a bit, actually. At this stage of the cycle 2004, AC Nielsen had the
coalition on 48 and Labor on 52. Newspoll was the same. The big drop in Newspoll today is in
Labor's primary vote down from 50 to 46. But even at that figure the Prime Minister's warning of
annihilation would still be more than apt.

(c) 2007 ABC