Friday, 17 August 2018 05:26

NBN Co forced to back down on charging rural users more Featured

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Under pressure from the Federal Government, the NBN Co, the company rolling out Australia's national broadband network, has backed down on a decision to charge rural and regional users $20 more for their fixed wireless 50/20Mbps plans.

As iTWire reported,NBN Co's chief financial officer Stephen Rue had told parliament's Joint Standing Committee on the NBN on Wednesday that users from these areas would have to pay $65 for a bundled 50/20 product.

Labor MP Brian Mitchell asked Rue: "I want to be crystal clear, are you saying that if somebody lives in the centre of Hobart and they are on a 50 [Mbps] bundled service, they are paying $45 wholesale and they move out to my electorate and get a fixed wireless tower on the new bundled service you’re talking about, they’ll be paying $65 wholesale? Is that in essence what you’re saying?"

To this, Rue responded: "If the retail provider chooses to purchase a bundled 50/20 product from us, that will be $65, yes."

Earlier, Rue had told the panel that the NBN Co would launch new fixed wireless discount bundles to ISPs on 20 August.

"We listened to feedback throughout the consultation and have kept the bundled price of the 50 Mbps product at $45 for existing users," he said.

On Thursday, during an interview on ABC Hobart, an NBN spokesman reiterated that charges would be higher. Asked by the presenter, "Is it fair that customers who just, by I guess where they live, have to pay more for a service that’s available in the city?", the spokesman responded, "Well this is one of the realities of the Internet."

Fifield said in his statement: "This is not the case. This will not occur. NBN Co engages in ongoing consultation with retailers about products and pricing," he said in a statement..

"NBN Co has responded to retailers by introducing new products and lower prices on a number of occasions. NBN Co is embarking on a fresh round of product consultations but have made no decisions."

He said the company offered equivalent pricing on comparable fixed line and fixed wireless products and the Federal Government would ensure that this continued.

"The government recognises the importance of ensuring affordable broadband is available to regional Australia. That’s why the Turnbull Government is investing more in regional telecommunications than ever before."

On Thursday, the NBN Co was singing a different tune after Communications Minister Mitch Fifield issued his statement.

Labor Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland and Shadow Regional Communications Minister Stephen Jones termed Fifield's statement "a humiliating retreat".

"Only 16 hours after NBN Co let the cat out of the bag, Mitch Fifield has made a humiliating retreat from plans to charge regional consumers on the fixed-wireless network $20 more to access broadband than consumers in the city," they said.

"At 6.15pm last (Wednesday) night, the NBN Co CFO revealed plans to charge regional consumers $20 more per month for a 50 Mbps plan than what a customer in the city customer would pay.

"At 9.45am (on Thursday) Labor said the price hike must be dropped, and called on the National Party to step in and pull the Liberals and the NBN Co into line.

"At 11.30am (on Thursday) the capitulation was on, with an embarrassed Mitch Fifield declaring in a statement that NBN was embarking on a 'fresh round of product consultations'."

NBN Co announced its annual results on Thursday, but swatted away any questions on this issue, by taking the same line as Fifield.

"Come midday, NBN Co was virtually pretending there was no hearing of the Joint Standing Committee last (Wednesday) night, that the CFO’s comments had been a figment of everyone’s imagination, and claiming no decision had been taken," Rowland and Jones said.

"Labor welcomes the capitulation on this unfair and unjust pricing change. This is a win for regional consumers and the principle of equity in telecommunications which only Labor can be trusted to protect. It is difficult to believe the minister had no idea what NBN Co was planning, especially given the duration of consultation on these changes."

They said that in the event Fifield was unaware of what was going on, "as was the case with the NBN HFC halt, he must seriously reassess his commitment to governance of the portfolio".

"Australia cannot afford to have a minister who never knows what is happening, is constantly thrown under the bus by key portfolio agencies, and has not demonstrated a strand of vision for the future of the communications sector."

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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