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Tuesday, 18 August 2009 02:35

Coalition senators oppose first NBN legislation

The Senate Committee enquiring into the legislation designed to facilitate the rollout of the National Broadband Network has tabled its report with coalition committee members calling for the legislation to apply only to the NBN implementation study, and for the government to return to the Parliament for fresh legislation should such be required.

The bill, the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures No 1) Bill 2009, would impose a requirement on telcos, power companies and any organisation owning networks, ducts or other infrastructure likely to be of use in rolling out the NBN to make information on that infrastructure available to the NBN company.

The bill was tabled in Parliament in late June and on 29 June was referred to the to the Senate Environment, Communications and the Arts Legislation Committee   for "Detailed consideration of scope of the requirements and the confidentiality protections" and "to assess that privacy provisions are adequate, and that the powers conferred are commensurate with need."

In an addition to the main report, Coalition senators responded to concerns expressed by utilities that their information could be made available to potential competitors once the NBN starts rolling out. "We have serious concerns about the apparent lack of certainty surrounding the issue of competitive neutrality in the context of this bill and the NBN Co. going forward...The explanatory memorandum...states that 'The provision of network information to the NBN Company would be subject to a further decision by the minister, thereby allowing any competitive neutrality issues to be considered further'.

They said: "We have considerable concerns about leaving these considerations in the hands of the minister. We therefore believe that further consideration should be given to limiting this bill to the provision of information for the implementation study only. Should it be determined after the implementation study that the NBN Co requires this information, the government should come back to the Parliament to get approval. Given there are so many details still to be finalised in regards to this project, we do not support giving the minister carte blanche powers with a ten year sunset clause...We believe this bill should be for the purposes of the implementation study only and support the sunset of this requirement in June 2010."

The Coalition was also concerned that organisations which will be required to comply with the legislation were not consulted prior to it being tabled, an omission that even the ALP dominated committee acknowledged. However in its report the committee professed itself "satisfied with the level of consultation with utilities and carriers since the bill was introduced into the Senate, and the undertaking by the Department for ongoing consultation as instruments and/or rules are drafted in the future."

The bill also requires organisations to provide requested information in 10 working days or face a penalty up to $250,000. The Coalition wants the time extended to 20 working days.

The bill contains no provision to compensate utilities for the cost of providing the required information. The explanatory memorandum said: "Any potential detriment to carriers and utilities if required to provide the information is outweighed by the national importance of the NBN to be planned and rolled out as efficiently as possible," adding that "The cost of making this information available is not considered onerous."

However as one rail industry representative told the committee. "There are over 44,000 kilometres of rail track in Australia and countless stations, terminals, offices, yards, sidings, depots and other facilities. A simple question such as the boundaries of land under railway control represents an enormous amount of work to answer with any degree of accuracy. Yet this is exactly what the rail industry fears could be required under the legislation. If such information is required without due regard to reasonableness or compensation, it will impose an unacceptable burden on the Industry."

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