Australia Briefs Lawmakers on Plan That Would Transform Telstra

Australia’s government briefed independent lawmakers on a planned national broadband network that will supplant services provided by Telstra Corp. to help win support for the A$43 billion ($42.7 billion) project.

Two legislators said they signed a two-week non-disclosure agreement and had an initial meeting this morning in Canberra with Michael Quigley, chief executive officer of NBN Co., the state-run company that will build and operate the service. The lawmakers were briefed on NBN’s unpublished plan and Telstra’s role, which would bring down the cost.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard needs the support of non-ruling party lawmakers in both houses of parliament to pass legislation. The high-speed Internet proposal, which would bring services to Australia’s remotest corners, is the country’s largest infrastructure project.

“I was happy to sign the confidentiality agreement,” independent lower-house lawmaker Andrew Wilkie said in an interview in Canberra today. “I was satisfied there would be some commercially-sensitive information that should be reasonably protected.”

Senator Steve Fielding, who represents the Family First party, said he also attended the NBN briefing.

The Senate will this week start debating the separation of Telstra’s retail business and copper-wire network, a necessary step for the broadband plan to proceed. Both houses of parliament will discuss the overall plan next year.

Lower House independents Rob Oakeshott and Bob Katter did not attend the NBN briefing. Independent Tony Windsor was not available for comment. The government needs four non-party votes in the lower house to approve laws.

Offer Appreciated

“I did not attend the briefing, although I appreciated the offer,” Oakeshott said in an interview. “I was not prepared to sign the confidentiality agreement.”

The government wooed the Greens Party in the Senate for the Telstra laws by promising any sale of the national broadband network would have to be approved by parliament. It still needs support from Fielding and Nick Xenophon, an independent senator.

“I am open-minded about the Telstra legislation,” Fielding said in an interview. “I have had a briefing this morning and we are expecting a vote on the laws later in the week.”

Xenophon met with Finance Minister Penny Wong and separately with Quigley today. He also spoke on the phone to Telstra Chief Executive Officer David Thodey, Xenophon’s spokesman Rohan Wenn said.

Election Impact

Gillard’s Internet plan drew fire ahead of the Aug. 21 election for its cost. She clung to power by forming a minority government with independent lawmakers from rural regions who welcomed the improved services.

Gillard’s proposal includes a non-binding agreement with Melbourne-based Telstra, the nation’s biggest phone company, to shut down its copper wire network and transfer customers to NBN in exchange for A$11 billion in compensation.

The broadband network is set to be completed by 2018, laying fiber optics that would reach 93 percent of the population, with the remainder served by wireless and satellite coverage. The project is comparable in size to the A$42 billion stimulus the government announced in February 2009 as it sought to protect the nation from recession.

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