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Nick Minchin

Leader of the Opposition in the Senate
Shadow Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy
Liberal Senator for South Australia
Nick Minchin


Senator the Hon Nick Minchin

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Look, up in the sky! There's an ugly downside to Labor's broadband projectEmail this pageBack

Monday, July 06, 2009 Printer Friendly Version

by Nick Minchin

The uproar sparked by the unfettered installation of unsightly aerial pay TV cables in the 1990s was the catalyst for the formation of lobby group Sydney Cables Down Under and others like it.

This group now has a new fight on its hands with the Rudd Government in cahoots with the Rees Government moving to override the concerns of residents and NSW's 152 councils to roll out aerial cables as part of the proposed national broadband network.

Despite planning to spend $43 billion on its half-baked "Ruddnet" plan, federal Labor is looking at ways to minimise time and to cut costs.

Optus estimates that if 100 per cent of the network's cables are deployed underground, as I am sure most taxpayers will quite reasonably expect, the network would cost $60 billion.

These figures give weight to the strong suspicion that the project's costings, which are little more than guesstimates, are based on a national network involving up to 70 per cent of the cables being strung between power poles.

Many suburban streets already have two black pay TV cables strung under the power lines. Under Labor's broadband plan, they are set to get a third. It's hardly the vision that comes to mind when Rudd spruiks the broadband project as this country's biggest "nation building" project. I am certain many people will be gobsmacked to learn that overhead cables are even being contemplated, let alone featuring prominently in Labor's plans.

This out-of-touch thinking is oblivious to the clear universal preference today for cables to be deployed underground. Many councils across the country have also moved overhead lines underground in response to the wishes of ratepayers.

In direct response to the pay TV cable debacle, the former Coalition government introduced safeguards in 1997 which require carriers to obtain approval from relevant state and local government planning authorities before being permitted to string up aerial cables.

Typically, this would see affected communities consulted and objections considered as part of the approval process. Now we have federal and state Labor governments wanting to ignore the lessons and change laws so proper process can be bypassed in a bid to expedite the network.

Once councils and residents across the country become aware of what is being proposed, this issue will rage through suburbia like a wildfire. It will also cause many headaches for state and federal MPs when their offices are bombarded with complaints from angry constituents. And quite rightly it will be Labor MPs who will be held directly responsible.

It has been reported that at least one cabinet colleague of the Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, has raised alarm about the broadband network's aerial cable component and I suspect many Labor backbenchers, who have been given no say, will be anxious, if not outraged.

Putting visual amenity, heritage and environmental considerations aside, overhead broadband cables hung between power poles are also extremely vulnerable to strong winds, fires, lightning strikes, high trucks, car accidents and vandalism. Experts advise that even possums and birds can cause problems.

It will be interesting to see the response of investors, lenders and insurers when they learn that the most critical and sensitive component of the network's assets will be hanging from power poles.

While nobody doubts the importance of broadband, wherever possible cables should be deployed underground in existing trenches and ducts and in new ones. In areas where it is not practical, communities and councils must be fully consulted and, if opposition is overwhelming, other options negotiated.

If the Rudd Government, in partnership with complicit state governments, rides roughshod over residents and councils to install overhead cables, the inevitable community backlash will overwhelm any anticipated short-term political gain.

Senator Nick Minchin is the opposition spokesman on broadband, communications and the digital economy.

This article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday 6 July 2009 on page 13. An online copy can be found at:

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