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News News Broadbank plan linked to risky seats
The Howard Government's $1.9 billion plan to deliver high-speed broadband to regional Australia was immersed in controversy within hours of being released yesterday, with a leaked email showing the coalition planned to use the key election issue to tighten its hold on marginal seats.

Communications giant Optus and agribusiness group Elders will spend $900 million building a wireless network covering 638,000sqkm of Australia, including Mandurah, Rockingham and Bunbury. Taxpayers will subsidise the rollout by $958 million. The final part of the Government's broadband plan, the $4 billion program to lay fibre-optic cable in the major cities, also took a step forward yesterday when the Prime Minister confirmed that a 10-member panel would determine whether Telstra or the Optus-led G9 consortium would build the "fibre-to-the-node" infrastructure needed to raise broadband speeds in the suburbs.

Consumers would pay between $35 and $60 a month for the service, which should be up and running by June, 2009. Construction will start in September.

Federal Communications Minister Helen Coonan said the coalition's plan was state-of-the-art. "Basically what we'll be offering is universal coverage, at a fraction of Labor's cost, in two years' time," she said.

"That will then also allow people living in rural and regional areas to get metro comparable prices."

But the announcement was overshadowed by accusations the Government plan was designed to protect coalition seats at risk of falling to Labor.

In Federal Parliament, Labor revealed an email from an adviser to Mrs Coonan to the department asking that information packs talking up the Government's broadband plans be tailored for marginal electorates. The note listed 40 "priority electorates", including the WA seats of Stirling, Hasluck, Kalgoorlie and Canning.

Labor also accused the Government of creating a two-tier system by using fibre-optic cable in the cities and wireless in the country. Fibreoptic cable is capable of delivering data about 100 times faster than the speeds enjoyed by most Australian internet users and considerably faster than 12Mbps wireless broadband that country Australians will use under the Howard plan.

"The Government proposes a twotiered system - a good system for the cities and a second-rate system for rural and regional Australia," Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd said.

"The technology being deployed in (the prime minister's) rural broadband roll out will only deliver maximum speeds in favourable weather, flat landscapes and low-use levels."

Labor has promised $4.7 billion in public funds as part of an $8 billion program to roll out a fibre-to-thenode network that would cover 98 per cent of the population, including most country areas.

John Howard defended the decision not to build a fibre-optic network in the bush, saying it was not practical to do so.

"From a physical point of view it is not possible for every part of Australia to have a fibre optic network and the wireless feeds which will be up to 12Mbps are away in advance of anything which is now available," Mr Howard said.

Finance Minister Nick Minchin said there is no justification for taxpayers to fund a high-speed broadband network in metropolitan areas.

"We can afford to provide generous support for broadband in regional and rural Australia," he said.

"We are putting our taxpayers' investment into the areas that need government subsidies - the regional areas where you can assess that there is some market failure. But ... there is simply no need for government funding of this in the cities because there the private sector is keen to build a fibre network by itself, without being subsidised by the taxpayers."

Australian Computer Society spokesman Professor Reg Coutts cast doubt on the 12Mbps target.

"This notion that you can define a bit rate like 12 megabits per second and say it is going to be equally available in Australia no matter where they live, let alone do it in two years, it just lacks complete credibility," he said.

"We've been trying to provide a telephone service to anyone in Australia ... and we still haven't done that."

Queensland Senator Barnaby Joyce said the Nationals would continue to push for a fibre network.

NICK BUTTERLY
CANBERRA

 
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