Coonan announces $1.9 billion network

National ICT minister Helen Coonan today launched the $1.9 billion Australia Connected infrastructure initiative to roll-out ADSL 2+ and WiMAX to 99 percent of Australia by 2009.

The initiative will receive $958 million from the $1.85 billion Broadband Connect program and more than $900 million from OPEL, a joint venture between Optus and rural service provider Elders, and promises speeds of 12 Mbps for most rural areas by expanding WiMax infrastructure.

Senator Coonan said OPEL joint venture will install ADSL2+ capabilities in 426 WiMax exchanges in regional and outer-metropolitan areas, and 15,000 kilometres of fibre optic backhaul to link rural and city networks and broaden links across the Bass Strait.

"Australia has now entered into a whole new broadband era with speeds 20 to 40 times faster than those used by most consumers today, with the first Australia Connected broadband network services to be switched on immediately," Coonan said, adding the plan will reduce regional backhaul costs by 30 percent.

"Retail prices for the new WiMax and ADSL2+ services will range from $35 to $60 per month, depending on the speed selected by the consumer.

"Beyond 2009, this new network will have the capacity to provide increased speeds, with funding assured from the $2 billion Communications Fund.

This new high speed wholesale broadband network is fully costed and will be built immediately."

The scheme will increase the availability of current ADSL2+ and WiMax services in rural and outer metro areas through a $600 million competitive grant and an additional $358 million in funding.

Meanwhile, Telstra, the Optus-lead G9 consortium and the ACCC continue to squabble over plans for a national Fibre-to-the-Node (FttN) network.

Coonan also announced the immediate creation of an FttN watchdog taskforce, chaired by the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA) secretary Patricia Scott, to attempt to pry-open debates and set a deadline for competitive FttN submissions.

"The guidelines for the [FttN] competitive bids process will be developed by the Expert Taskforce in consultation with industry, and the Taskforce will settle a realistic timetable for the bids to be submitted and assessed," Coonan said.

Telecommunications analyst, Paul Budde, said the scheme is realistic in light of stagnated FttN debates, although ADSL2+ and WiMAX are not cutting-edge technologies.

"It is a realistic project which uses the common idea of a shared network with bits of WiMax, Broadband over Powerline (BPL) and some ADSL2+, however its not the best," Budde said.

"It's designed around results because consumers don't give a damn about the technology, they just want good, reliable speeds.

"Telstra will react with lower prices for the regional areas and we will have a better rural service."

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Technology will be constructed to suit the geography and infrastructure of each region, according to Budde who said WiMax could be used to cover 50 kilometre flat areas, with fibre deployed in more dense metropolitan communities.

He said remote inland areas outside a 50 kilometre radius from a metropolitan centre, represent the 1 percent not covered by the Australia Connected plan.

It is an area that will always be forced to use satellite connections.

The government so far has launched the Australian Broadband Guarantee, offering $2750 subsidy to each regional household forced to use satellite connections, the BroadbandNow telephone and Web help desk, and the preservation of the $2 billion Communications Fund, which guarantees funding of $400 million every three years for development of regional broadband infrastructure.

"This review is critical to ensure service parity between metropolitan, and rural and regional Australia and the government will shortly announce the formation of the next independent committee with the inquiry to get underway this year," Coonan said.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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