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Australia’s new government under pressure to hit broadband targets

Newly elected conservative coalition government will see Australia’s National Broadband Network plan become a higher priority

Australia’s ruling conservative coalition won a wafer-thin majority in this month’s double dissolution election and faces hard work in the next parliament as it grapples with innovation and broadband policy.

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is forming the government with a tiny majority in the 150-seat House of Representatives. It will not have the majority it sought in the Senate upper house by calling a double dissolution. A slew of minor parties, ranging from the far right One Nation Party to the leftist Greens, will hold the balance of power in the Senate.

The coalition’s biggest tech challenge over the coming three-year term will be the roll-out of the controversial National Broadband Network, a A$50bn-plus upgrade of the country’s communications infrastructure that was begun by a former Labor government in 2009.

The NBN will now roll out as a jumble of technologies as proscribed by Turnbull when he was communications minister in the previous coalition government, before he dispatched previous PM Tony Abbott last September.

The Labor version of the NBN was to have been an almost all fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) build with wireless and satellite technology for remote areas, but Turnbull drastically changed the plan’s structure, citing cost blow-outs and delays with the Labor NBN.

More than one-third of the NBN will now be fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) using the old Telstra copper network to connect to premises. About 20% of homes have received fast and future-proof FTTP under the Labor plan.

A further third of the NBN will be an upgrade and extension of the HFC (hybrid fibre co-axial) pay TV infrastructure laid out in some capital city areas by major telcos Telstra and Optus in the mid-1990s. The rest of the network is fixed wireless or satellite for remoter regions.

Turning FTTN into FTTP

During the election campaign, Labor promised to turn most of the FTTN build into FTTP and to look at plans to convert the HFC part of the NBN to FTTP at a later date. Labor said its NBN plan would be completed in 2022.

The coalition says its NBN will finish in 2020 at a cost of A$56bn. In 2013, it promised the network would be completed in 2016 at a cost of A$29bn.

Given that the next election will need to be held by the middle of 2019, the coalition will be under heavy political pressure to have most of the NBN rolled out and functioning satisfactorily before it goes to the polls again.

After this month’s election, Labor intends to push the NBN hard, with its communications spokesman Jason Clare telling website that the project was a major election issue, although hardly mentioned by the coalition, and that it will hold the government to account on its delivery promises.

Read more about the Australian National Broadband Network

Whether customers are satisfied with the performance of their FTTN or HFC connections remains to be seen. Consumers wanting to stream 4K definition shows from the likes of Netflix to multiple TV screens could struggle with FTTN and its promised 50Mbps to most fixed-line users. Netflix says 4K streaming requires a steady 25Mbps.

The coalition also has work to do on innovation policy, made harder by the shock loss of former innovation minister Wyatt Roy, who became the youngest Australian to win a federal lower house seat in 2010 and the youngest, at 26, to lose his seat of Longman, Queensland, this month.

Which coalition MP will fill the innovation slot remains to be seen, with Turnbull yet to announce his cabinet.

One possibility is Angus Taylor, the coalition’s assistant minister for cities and digital transformation in the last parliament.

Crowdfunding for startups

The government urgently needs to address its legislation enabling equity-based crowdfunding for startups.

A coalition bill to enable equity crowdfunding had passed through the House of Representatives but remained stalled in the Senate before parliament was dissolved for the election.

The bill would allow publicly unlisted companies with annual turnover and gross assets of less than $5m to raise up to $5m a year from individuals in return for equity in the company, with a maximum investment per individual of $10,000 a year. Labor had criticised the bill because it stopped short of letting private concerns get crowdfunding.

During the campaign, the coalition said it was committed to enabling equity-based crowdfunding and would “get to” the issue of private companies.

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