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Wed, Apr 08, 2009 - Page 10 News List

Australia to invest US$31 billion to build high-speed broadband network

REUTERS , CANBERRA

Customers log on to the Internet in an inner city Internet cafe in Sydney yesterday.

PHOTO: AFP

The Australian government will build a A$43 billion (US$31 billion) high-speed broadband network, leading a new private-public company, after rejecting bids by companies that it said failed to offer value for money.

In a surprise move, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said yesterday the government would ask private companies to join the country’s biggest infrastructure project to build a network that would be up to 100 times faster than the current network.

Australia has slower and more expensive Internet services than many developed countries, raising concerns about competitiveness, but the project will be made more difficult by the country’s vast distances and inhospitable terrain.

“It’s time for us to bite the bullet on this. The initiative announced today is a historic nation-building investment focused on Australia’s long-term national interest,” Rudd told reporters at parliament.

The center-left government would sell its majority stake five years after the network, which still requires parliamentary approval, is fully operational.

The fiber-optic network, central to Rudd’s winning election campaign in late 2007, will be Australia’s biggest reliance yet on public-private partnerships and underscores Rudd’s preference for government intervention amid a bruising global financial crisis.

A consortium comprising wealthy Australian businessmen and telecoms industry veterans had been favorite to win the project ahead of Optus, which is owned by Singapore Telecommunications, and Canada’s Axia NetMedia.

The tender process was enveloped in controversy after the country’s largest phone company, Telstra Corp, was dumped from the running in December, after the government panel overseeing bids said its proposal did not fit requirements.

Rudd said the new network would be built with money from a A$20 billion national infrastructure fund and the sale of bonds, following an initial government investment of A$4.7 billion. Private sector investment would be capped at 49 percent.

It adds to A$78 billion in economic stimulus measures announced by the government since September to lift the stalling economy.

Rudd estimated building the network would take seven to eight years, presenting a risk that voters could be alienated by the long delay as the government faces re-election late next year.

“We’ve delivered an enhanced election commitment. We’re actually delivering faster speeds to more people,” Australian Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said, shaking off concerns that the scrapped tender could anger voters and big telcos.

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