Govt silent on regional telco funding

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Govt silent on regional telco funding

Could spend up to $325m after regional review.

The Federal Government has established its third independent review of regional telecommunications since 2002, but has remained silent as to how much might be spent on initiatives rising from the committee's recommendations.

Figures from the Glasson review point to $325 million in unallocated funds, which could ultimately be spent on addressing the committee's recommendations.

The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy revealed the committee would receive approximately $1 million to undertake work on the report until March next year.

But in answers to questions on notice posted last week, the department told the Senate that funding for any of the recommendations in the second committee's report would be "made in the relevant budget context".

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy was reluctant to commit any specific funding ahead of the report's publication.

"The [2008 Glasson] committee recommended that we wait to see how the NBN pans out in terms of expending the rest of the money," he said at an estimates hearing.

"The money was set aside so that we could undertake it once the NBN world is a little clearer, which is slowly beginning to be the case."

Investigating NBN opportunities

The review, to be led by former Australian Telecommunications User Group chairman Rosemary Sinclair, would focus on aligning key outcomes from the Federal Government's digital economy strategy with the current state of telecommunications outside metropolitan areas.

The committee would be tasked with investigating and reporting on the opportunities provided by the National Broadband Network in areas such as health and education. Sinclair has reportedly looked at digital literacy as one possible point of investigation.

It is expected to deliver its report by March 5 next year, with the Government to respond to its recommendations within six months of the report being tabled.

The review is the third of its kind, following committees established in 2002 and 2007.

The 2007 committee, chaired by former Australian Medical Association president, Dr Bill Glasson, had been tasked with determining how to spend the $400 million in interest raised from the Howard Government's $2 billion Communications Fund.

The Glasson review led to the Government assigning $75 million - or 19 percent of the fund - to digital initiatives in regional Australia and a subsidy program for satellite phones.

Conroy's office has remained silent on the use or whereabouts of the remaining $325 million,

"Sadly, the funds that used to exist to support it have slightly vanished," Liberal senator Simon Birmingham said during a Senate estimates hearing in May.

One member of the previous committee, Barcoo Shire mayor Bruce Scott, had pointed to the remaining allocated money as a possible funding source for an attempt by his and other towns in remote south-west Queensland to build its own fibre network in the area.

The project had attracted tentative support from Conroy but no concrete funding.

Windsor advisor makes the cut

Accompanying Sinclair on the committee board would be cattle farmer Warren McLachlan, telco consultant Robin Eckermann, legal academic Heron Loba and Australian Landcare Council chairman Kim Chance.

The most notable addition was Alun Davies, a former Telstra employee best known for advising independent MP Tony Windsor on the decision to support the NBN.

Windsor had credited Davies' advice for his historic decision to back the Labor party in government following the 2010 federal election. He also borrowed Davies' line in his speed announcing his decision: "You do it once, you do it right and you do it with fibre".

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