A scathing parliamentary report into the National Broadband Network (NBN) has called for sweeping changes to the project amid concerns poor and rural areas will be left behind by the current plan.
The joint federal inquiry’s 210-page report, released on Friday, says the remainder of the fixed line network should be completed as fibre-to-the-curb (FTTC) “at a minimum” and recommends an independent audit into NBN Co’s financial projections and business case.
The government-owned telco would be “asked to produce a costed plan and timetable under which that would be achieved” under the first of 23 recommendations.
The committee said the Coalition’s multi-technology plan – which wound back Labor’s original fibre-to-the-premise proposal – meant Australians living in poorer or more remote areas could be left behind by a “digital divide”.
“While NBN has outlined the framework they are working from to be able to deliver an upgrade as the market demands it, this ‘user pays’ approach runs the risk of creating a digital divide in which low socioeconomic areas with poor NBN are not upgraded because the demand and matching revenue will not meet the NBN upgrade model,” the report said.
“As it stands, Australia will not be provided with a fast, affordable, ubiquitous, and fair broadband network.”
The report was released on Friday before the AFL and NRL grand finals, prompting one advocacy group, Internet Australia, to claim it had been released quietly in the finest traditions of “putting out the trash”.
The report also calls for the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman to be given more powers to handle customer complaints and for the creation of a reference group to support the rollout in regional and remote communities.
“The committee is particularly concerned at the length of time taken to resolve some complaints and get NBN services working properly, especially where this delay has a monetary impact on small businesses or presents a health and safety risk for households,” the report said.
Government hits back
The Labor and crossbench-stacked committee’s recommendations were not accepted by the minority cohort of government MPs.
The committee’s chair, Liberal MP Sussan Ley, issued a dissenting report signed by five government MPs. It was not signed by Nationals MP Andrew Broad.
Ms Ley conceded there had been issues but said Labor’s solution was simply to increase regulation and spending on the project.
“Rolling out the next-generation NBN to all Australians as quickly as possible is a priority for the Coalition government,” her report said.
“But national objectives must always be tempered by economic reality, and tested by thorough public scrutiny.”
The report is the culmination of eight months of public hearings and submissions into the project’s rollout.
During the hearings, the committee heard from Central Coast artist Kenneth Knight, who said he had been left without internet between early November and late December last year, costing him $60,000 to $70,000 in business over Christmas.
Amid concern rural and regional areas would miss out on future upgrades, the committee said those customers were already among the “least satisfied and most frustrated with their NBN experience”.
The rollout is ahead of schedule, the report said, but an estimated 15 per cent of the fixed line network was on track to miss out on 50 megabits per second. This speed should be available to 90 per cent of the fixed line network, according to the government.