A groundswell of 40 companies will work together to tap Federal funding
and patch together their disparate networks to create a new wholesale
network infrastructure across Australia. Meeting for the second time in
Sydney yesterday the clandestine group agreed on the formation and
charter of a new wholesale network industry association and will now
set about building a strategy to access the Government’s Connect
Australia fund.

A delegation of six has been selected to meet with Communications
Minister Helen Coonan and senior DCITA officials next week, when they
hope to further steel Government support for a consortium approach to
infrastructure development. Speaking with CommsDay after the meeting,
initiative leader Paul Budde confirmed that the Australian Wholesale
Industry Association was now a certainty to become a reality.

He said that while formalities were still in flux, there was a firm
commitment across the industry to create a new open wholesale network
and deliver facilities-based competition in both the backbone and
access markets. “This is going to be an alternative network that is
going to start delivering facilities-based competition, something that
is missing in Australia at present. That competition won’t have the
scale as it does in some other markets but it is a start,” Budde said.
“We’re very much focused on end-to-end wholesale open network where all
the parties can connect to each others networks on a commercial basis
and fully utilise the network of networks.”

While Budde has not revealed the identity of any specific participants
he said the Association counted support from across the industry
including fixed and wireless operators, utilities and other companies.
Early supporters are believed to include Budde’s own Utilitel, as well
as Silk Telecom, Nexium Telecommunications, Austar and Soul Converged
Communications.

Budde says the Association has reached a critical point where players
are either “in or out,” but that membership remains open to all comers,
including Telstra, which while publicly reticent on investment
partnerships is reportedly considering a particular consortium
proposal. According to Budde, even without Telstra’s membership, the
Association will look to form a healthy relationship with the carrier
to avoid costly duplication.

“The group very much wants to cooperate with all players in the market
including Telstra as long as Telstra can agree to operate on that same
open basis. The industry sees great advantage in working with Telstra
because we don’t want to duplicate networks where it does not make
sense. In some areas duplication will make sense and competition will
drive that, but where it does not make sense we’ll sit down with
Telstra and work to avoid any stupid situation of overbuild,” he said.

Significantly, the Association will also seek input from regional
cities and groups and State Governments to uncover the best options for
wholesale access network investment. Vendors too will be offered
associate membership. “It’s very important to note that this is an open
initiative and that if others feel that they should be involved, they
will be welcome,” Budde said. A veteran agitator in the Australian
communications market, Budde has long tried to achieve a cooperative
approach to network investment but has to date achieved only limited
success. The difference now, he says, is Ministerial backing – Coonan
has made several public statements backing a partnership strategy for
disseminating Connect Australia funds – and the prospect of a $1.1
billion funding package for regional infrastructure development.

“I have been trying to get something like this going for over three
years but the reason we are going ahead now is because there is a bag
of money on the table,” Budde said. “The Minister has very clearly
supported this initiative and partnerships in the industry and is
saying that there is money on the table for an alternative wholesale
network.”

He said the delegation to Canberra next week aimed to present
its needs and suggestions, and to gain feedback from the Minister.
Budde said that Association members were due to meet again in one
month’s time when they will further settle a formal structure and
receive an update from an already-formed mapping group.

Peter Fray

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