Australia plans telco sector dispute bill

The Australian Federal Government is planning to introduce new legislation in August to resolve access and pricing disputes in the telecommunications sector.

IT and Telecommunications Minister Senator Richard Alston said the Government will not wait for the final report from the Productivity Commission's hearings into the current telecommunications regulatory regime, -- to be tabled in parliament in September -- due to a looming election.

However, Alston said the legislative changes will be in line with the commission's interim report.

"These are big issues involving deep pockets and they deserve to be resolved as quickly as possible," the senator said.

In an exclusive interview with Computerworld, Alston said the Government could not wait until September "given that an election would be reasonably imminent by that point".

Alston is presently embroiled in the interactive gaming bill and parliament will not be sitting again until August.

Based on the parliamentary timetable, August is highly likely for the telecommunication sector disputes bill, as it will be the Government's only opportunity to implement change before an election.

"If we wait until September . . . it is highly likely you wouldn't get any changes in place. . .you would lose 12 months and we are not prepared to wait that length of time," Senator Alston said.

"(The changes) will involve legislative change as well as some regulatory administration arrangements. It is an ongoing challenge to ensure maximum competition and minimize bottle necking.

"I think it is fair to say there is a degree of gaming that goes on, not just Telstra (Corp. Ltd.), but all the players in the industry take advantage, where it suits them, of the current regulatory framework."

Alston said the Government will examine options and amendments under existing legislation and push Telstra to roll out its digital upgrade of the Hybrid Fiber Coaxial (HFC) network.

The move follows accusations from Telstra that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is encouraging disputes between carriers and providing low access prices that let competitors avoid investing in telecommunication projects.

Telstra said it will not roll out its HFC network until the "horrendous powers" of the competition watchdog are muzzled.

Alston agreed with Telstra's concerns pointing out "the price of access has to give the owner of the network a reasonable rate of return on investment".

"We want to open up Telstra's network on a fair basis - that is the ongoing strategy, we are going to take steps now, not just wait for the commission's report in September."

Telstra released a statement last week claiming disagreements between carriers on price and access conditions are falling.

The statement said the ACCC has produced only six final determinations since 1998 although there is a backlog of 24 undetermined cases in arbitration.