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NBN expert panel info: Please sir, can I have some more?

Federal opposition and telco players question secrecy surrounding the NBN expert panel's recommendations

The government’s decision to veil recommendations made by the National Broadband Network (NBN) expert panel from public scrutiny has garnered mixed opinions from the telco industry.

Last week, communications minister, Stephen Conroy, announced he had received the final report, written by a panel of eight industry experts, into the regulatory environment of the looming NBN.

Until then, the government had not seen the contents of any proposal nor received any detailed briefings from the panel of experts, Conroy said, emphasising that the gag order surrounding the NBN process remained in place.

“The disclosure of the contents of the Panel of Experts' report before the completion of the process, particularly any negotiation phase, has the potential to prejudice the outcome of the process. As such, the Government will not be commenting on the contents of the report,” read a statement on Conroy’s website.

Responding to the continued lack of public oversight, executive director of the Competitive Carriers Coalition (CCC), David Forman, reiterated his association’s position that there needs to be more open discussion regarding the regulatory and competition arrangements among all stakeholders, before the government makes any decision on who will be awarded the tender.

“The focus from the Minister has been on protecting a negotiating position for the purpose of financial and investment elements of the process, which is understandable because the government wants best bang for its buck,” he said.

Australia’s “appallingly high prices” for communications services – which he labelled among the worst in the OECD – were indicative of a failed competition regime, Forman said.

“That is why for even minor changes in regulatory arrangements through normal ACCC processes we have multiple stages of public comment. Those are all absent in this process and they raise grave risks that mistakes could be made through a lack of understanding of the needs of some stakeholders and the impacts on them of various proposals, be they competitors or consumers,” he said.

CEO of telco analyst Market Clarity, Shara Evans, also felt there should be more transparency.

“The gag did a disservice to everybody, both consumers and the industry, because nobody knew what anybody else was planning to do and it didn’t allow for public or industry discussion. Everything is just behind closed doors,” she said, suggesting the government should have struck a balance between all and no information being made public.

“We as an industry, and consumers, would have been better served if the proponents had been able to talk about their ideas, their approach, and get feedback on that and fine tune it, instead of everything being done in secret… it really did stymie detailed and serious discussion.”

Telarus managing director, Jules Rumsey, said he generally agreed there should be more transparency regarding proposals for the NBN and any significant considerations being made as part of the negotiating process.

“If the wrong decisions are made it has the potential to throw the telecommunications industry and indeed the economy into turmoil.” he said

The industry should be able to comment on how the selected bid would cater to its varied needs before the ‘go’ button is pressed, according to Rumsey.

Founder of broadband network designer Layer 10, Dr Paul Brooks, said because public money was involved there was a need for some form of transparency, but the question was the timing of it.

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“At this stage of the game the details of the proposal should still be kept private. The processes and the timing should be public but it’s probably too early for revealing details if there is still a great deal of negotiating and potential change to come,” he said.

“Otherwise you just get confusion so I’m not that sure the criticism is justified. There is a role for privacy and private negotiations in the process at this stage."

Despite delays in the process, Senator Conroy said it was more important the NBN was built right.

“But the other part of the debate is that the public isn’t sure what he [Senator Conroy] has in mind with the word ‘right’,” Brooks said.

Opposition shadow minister for communications, Nick Minchin, said the secrecy made a mockery of Senator Conroy’s promise that the NBN process would be open and transparent.

He dismissed Conroy’s claims that public scrutiny would prejudice the process as “complete nonsense”.

Minchin called on the government to release as much detail as possible from both the expert panel and the ACCC for public comment before the NBN tender was awarded.