Broadband bidders slam lax fibre tender

Industry issues a Request for Policy.

Australia's National Broadband Network will suffer because the government's tender documents lack detail and an adequate policy framework, according to telecommunications providers.

Contenders to build the Fibre-to-the-Node (FttN) network claim the government has not provided enough details and allocated sufficient time to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to design the best possible solution.

The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) recently issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) to design, build and operate an $8 billion fibre optic network to supply minimum Internet speeds of 12Mbps to 98 percent of Australia.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy set an ambitious three month window for bidders to submit proposals, with the winner to be chosen in October.

It seems [the government] is keen on having a photo opportunity at Christmas

iiNet

Internet providers called on the government to provide more detail on network architecture, standards and regulation requirements.

iiNet chief regulation officer Stephen Dalby said the lax details and narrow timeframe place unnecessary pressure on bidders at the expense of network design.

"I can say with absolute confidence that that there is not enough time for companies to construct a bid. It seems somebody is keen on having a photo opportunity at Christmas," Dalby said.

"There is no design information in the RFP, it just states it will be an FttN network. They have to make 101 assumptions in their bids

"There's lot's of assurances saying 'she'll be right', but that's not good enough for a multi-billion dollar network that's going to be around for decades."

The tender specifically lacks information on standards and protocols, interconnections, wholesale services and regulation regime, he claims.

Dalby said bids submitted under the current RFP will be built on assumptions and filled with entry and exit clauses.

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Rumours circulated through the industry of a possible clandestine deal between Conroy and Telstra which would render the RFP a token gesture, after Telstra spokesperson Dr. Phil Burgess told The Australian it will win the FttN contract, a day prior to the RFP announcement.

Dalby debunked the theory, but said the former government monopoly holds a significant advantage over its rival bidders because it holds the most information on Australia's network infrastructure.

He said the telco has used its lion's share of data to develop FttX plans over the last three years and gain an advantage over rivals.

The government triggered an industry backlash after it requested copies of sensitive network information from infrastructure owners to frame the RFP. The DBCDE has submitted a bill to parliament to build in privacy assurances and will soon re-issue the call.

Macquarie Telecom spokesperson Matt Healy said the RFP's weak policy framework has made it more difficult for bidders to create the best fibre network for Australia.

"The [RFP] seems to be a lost opportunity for the government to make clear policy statements," Healy said.

"The later the information is made publicly available, the more difficult it will be for companies to make a plan.

"There is no use to naval-gaze at whether the deadline is enough; the Minister has the power to set the date and we dance to that tune."

Healy said policy transparency will remove any chance of bidder favouritism and ensure the best network model will win the contract.

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The Optus-led G9 consortium will re-submit its $3.6 billion FttN plan after a redraft to comply with Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) recommendations.

Under the new proposal, dubbed the Special Access Undertaking (SAC), capital cities will be the first to receive fibre with speeds up to 24Mbps. Priority will be given to regional areas which do not currently receive ADSL.

The ACCC [[xref:http://www.optus.com.au/portal/site/aboutoptus/menuitem.813c6f701cee5a14f0419f108c8ac7a0/?vgnextoid=edeb9646d86e6110VgnVCM10000029867c0aRCRD&vgnextchannel=daf6d7ef03820110VgnVCM10000029867c0aRCRD |rejected|new]] the G9 proposal late last year because of issues pertaining access prices, product roadmaps, and non-price access conditions.

Telstra would build an open-access FttN network delivering 100Mbps over a mix of fibre and Very High Speed Digital Subscriber Line (VDSL).

Shadow communications minister Bruce Billson criticized the RFP and called for a stronger binding document.

"There is also clause in the RFP stating that this is not a process contract. The Minister can't have it both ways [because] these documents are either binding or they're not," Billson said.

"If a non-compliant bid is successful, the Minister could face a legal challenge and compensation claim from compliant bidders."

Conroy told industry figures last week that the department will accept non-complying bids and said bidders can "put forward a bid in any structure".