Helen Coonan this morning highlighted the central problem with proposals to build a new fast broadband network, no matter which political party wins the next federal election. Effectively, only Telstra can do it unless the Government is prepared to be draconian with legislation.

During a lengthy and tough interview on Jon Faine’s ABC Melbourne program this morning, Coonan spoke (at about the 16 minute mark) of the “almost insurmountable” problems facing any proposal from Telstra’s competitors.

Coonan pointed out that any of Telstra’s competitors who built a fibre to the node network would still have to gain access to Telstra’s copper wire network to carry the service from the nodes on street corners to individual premises. Telstra has already signalled that it has no intention of granting that access.

The competitors would also need legislation to prevent Telstra duplicating its network, and more legislation to force Telstra to use the new network.

Coonan’s words indicate that this just isn’t going to happen, and it would indeed be extraordinary for any Government to legislate to prevent a private company like Telstra from upgrading its infrastructure.

This is why the reality behind the political posturing on broadband is that both the Government and Labor are likely to cut Telstra a deal on regulation. The implications of this for Australia’s future are huge – much greater than whether or not public funding is used to get the network built.

The media urgently needs to press both Coonan and her opposite number Conroy on the detail of regulation.

Telstra is the new bully boy of Australian public life, prepared to use its muscle in political campaigns – and it is also on the way to becoming one of our biggest media companies. Telstra is far more than just a telco.

In answer to questions, Coonan said she had had no discussions with Telstra about the impact of today’s changes to media ownership legislation. We should not be reassured. Telstra may well be a buyer of assets now or in the future, and there is no particular reason why they should consult the minister.

Coonan sounded slightly ridiculous early in the interview sticking to her line that the flurry of “positioning” among media companies late last year was not caused by her new laws.

Faine quite rightly pointed out that while the flurry took place under old regime, the thing media companies were positioning for was the new legislative order, which starts today.

And on a topic Crikey has pursued, Coonan said that the redrafted bill aimed at censoring online and mobile telephone content will now be presented in the Budget session of Parliament.

It was originally scheduled for the autumn session, until Crikey’s reporting and accompanying controversy highlighted that the original draft had enormous and unintended consequences.

Watch this space.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey