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NBN hearing: homes and business in broadband limbo

Up to 4000 Tasmanian home and businesses could be thrown into a broadband blackspot when their local copper connections are switched off on May 23.

It follows claims from Senator Stephen Conroy that the Coalition government has axed fibre connections to 60,000 homes and businesses in the state when the rollout maps were revised by the incoming Coalition Government in October.

Tasmania was the first state to receive the NBN, but thousands of premises are yet to be connected.
Tasmania was the first state to receive the NBN, but thousands of premises are yet to be connected. 

At a senate committee hearing on the National Broadband Network (NBN) in Hobart on Tuesday, Digital Tasmania (DigiTas) spokesperson John Dalton said that plans to deactivate six towns’ copper services within 16 weeks would digitally isolate 4000 homes, or approximately 50 per cent of premises, which still don’t have access to fibre.

Tasmania was the first state to connect to the NBN in 2010.

‘‘Across those six towns, approximately 50 per cent of premises don’t currently have an active NBN connection – that's approximately 4000 premises that only have 16 weeks in order to connect before the cut off date," Dalton said.

He said the number could be higher as in some cases, such as that of St Helens, only 30 per cent of premises had an active NBN connection.

About half of the homes and businesses in those were connected to the NBN over the past two years, but for the remainder the rate of connections could be further delayed by additional factors, including landlord co-operation, heritage building issues, and even contractors missing appointments.

"Due to low awareness of the copper switch off, as well as other difficulties and delays, the May 23 date is unrealistic and likely to cause damage to the NBN rollout."

At the hearing, Senator Stephen Conroy claimed that since the Coalition government was elected last year, 60,000 homes and businesses have been removed from the maps detailing the planned rollout of fibre connectivity.

Dalton was unable to confirm this figure as the rollout maps had become "maps of uncertainty."

"Who knows what will happen? We don’t. We would love to see the government stand by its commitment to continue with construction as originally proposed, we’d like to see the maps leap back up in coverage."

Tasmanian Senator Lin Thorp also made an impassioned plea for Tasmania to continue to capitalise on its first-mover advantage of the NBN rollout.

"I can see a window here still, even if the rest of Australia misses out. The NBN review still holds the intention of about 26 per cent getting fibre-to-the-premises, and we can still be part of that and get what we were originally promised, and still get it by 2015," Ms Thorp said.

Referring to mentions of Secret Lab, a Hobart-based game and app developer that has epitomised the digital opportunity for start-ups, Ms Thorp invited Mr Dalton to explain the economic opportunity the NBN brought to the state.

"We think it’s a once in a generation, once in a lifetime, opportunity to help Tasmania transform its economy to be less dependent on resources, or on any one section of the economy," Mr Dalton said.

"We want the opportunity to transform ourselves to be leaders and be able to operate with confidence on the world stage knowing our size and remoteness are no disadvantage.

"We want Tasmanians only to be constrained by their ingenuity and creativity, rather than by the technology available."

Dean Winter, executive officer of TasICT, told the hearing "NBN providers are reporting to me and to the business community that they are having incredible difficulties obtaining connection – in some cases it requires significant intervention to achieve connection whatsoever".

Mr Winter said the average waiting time was three months, with the worse case scenario being 13 months. He said one media printing business that had finished one ADSL contract last year could not be connected by another ADSL provider because NBN had passed its premises. The business was was still without a fixed connection, having to make do with wireless broadband dongles, he said.

Mr Dalton told the hearing DigiTas was very concerned information about the rollout had been redacted from the NBN Strategic Review released in December, including "considerable details" of construction and connections by lead contractor VisionStream.

"We don’t believe it’s conducive to open and honest debate," he said.

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