Is Conroy forgetting about OPEL?

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In his first major IT industry address, Senator Stephen Conroy stood before some 500 attendees, but forgot all about mentioning OPEL.

Last month, Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy, reaffirmed a number of big budget investments that the Government is banking on to push Australia’s digital economy into the future.

Presenting his first major address to the IT industry at the Internet Industry Association Annual Gala Dinner, Conroy outlined future plans for Australia’s digital economy, re-affirmed the Government’s pledge to build a nationwide broadband network and green-lighted plans for ISP level filtering.

But what caught the ear of most attendees, probably to the chagrin of OPEL representatives, was Conroy’s unwavering commitment to build a $4.7 billion high-speed fibre-based broadband network.

“Our future productivity, our ability to compete with global markets and our wealth creation all rely on a world-class communications system,” he told the 500 gala dinner attendees while giving a big thumbs up to plans for a nationwide fibre-to-the-home network.

Although Conroy was scant in his details, the remarks, which effectively move the $4.7 billion broadband plan from a ‘maybe’ to a definitive ‘yes’, come as little surprise. The real surprise in Conroy’s comments actually came from what he didn’t say. At no did he even make mention of the Howard Government-approved and $1 billion- backed OPEL Wimax network.

But is avoiding discussion on OPEL’s plans that surprising? Since coming into power the Rudd government has done its best to skirt away from offering any sort of commitment to carrying out the proposed OPEL network.

Since first winning the tender, the OPEL WiMax network has come under continual fire, first by Conroy himself when he claimed it offered 50 percent less coverage than promised, and later by industry players, competing ISPs and analysts who believe the solution will create network overbuild and kill competition.

Even without all the negative industry discourse, the consortium has run into its own share of technical and unexpected financial hurdles. One came in the form of choosing an untested and unlicenced spectrum for its WiMax solution, while another hurdle came from an unpredicted $100 million blowout to rectify the spectrum uncertainty.

Regardless of its criticisms, the fact remains that thanks to the previous government, OPEL remains firmly on the cards despite how little Conroy wants to talk about it. Which leads us to ask, is it really going to be that bad? Sure some regional ISPs will feel they can’t compete against a subsidised provider, but that will always be the case when a new competitor comes to town. On the other hand, it’s very possible that OPEL could actually create more competition. According to Shara Evans, CEO of broadband analyst Market Clarity, it may transpire that regional providers will be able to use the OPEL network to supplement services and reach customers previously out of range.

As for the actual technical solution that OPEL plans to build, not all analysts think it’s already a dead dog before it even takes its first steps. Telecommunications analyst Paul Budde believes the best plans for a robust nationwide broadband network will come from integration with a solution just like OPEL’s.

He points out that even though the Rudd Government has been unusually quiet on its plans for the OPEL network, it does not necessarily mean that it won’t go ahead.

“While the previous government’s plans have committed Conroy to the OPEL investments, the details have not been signed off and that would give him room to change the original plan,” he says. “This could mean that rather than having two standalone projects, a more practical approach may be to merge them into a national strategy encompassing both.”

Budde raises a pertinent point that’s often overlooked. While people are quick to jump on board a single solution promising to fix all our broadband woes, perhaps we should be looking to more eclectic solutions that actually suit our diverse geography. We all know we deserve equivalent broadband services but putting all our eggs in one solution will not bring the outcome we all expect.

What Conroy did say

Conroy’s speech wasn’t only interesting for what he didn’t say. He also spoke at length about how Labor’s plans for the digital landscape would shape the Rudd Government’s “education revolution” and announced a series of new e-security initiatives to take hold over the next year. Speaking of the “education revolution,” Conroy pledged $1 billion in funding to ensure secondary school students could participate in the digital landscape, while on the security front he outlined plans for a range of e-security initiatives to target awareness among home users, students and small businesses.

Finally, Conroy all but green-lighted the Rudd Government’s election commitment to introduce ISP level filtering to reduce the exposure of children to illegal content.

“Labor has never argued that ISP filtering is a silver bullet solution, but it is an important step in the overall strategy to make the Internet a safer place for children,” Conroy said.

Although he acknowledged ISP level filtering could potentially affect Internet speeds, Conroy added little else to quell concerns surrounding the issue, other than to say there would be a trial process first.
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