Nats offer views on Telstra sale

A REPORT on the future of telecommunications in the bush released yesterday suggested the cost to rollout fibre optic cables in non-metropolitan areas was at least $20 billion less than previously estimated by Telstra.

The report from The Nationals think tank, the Page Research Centre, said a business consortium had offered a $7billion preliminary costing to complete the rollout of hitech cables over five years.

It noted that Telstra's assessment of the same project estimated the cost to be around $30billion over a 20-year period.

A discussion paper rather than a Nationals policy statement, the report provided four options it believed the Howard Government should consider before selling its remaining stake in Telstra.

Along with the optic fibre rollout it suggested wireless technology should be available in the bush prior to any sale, and that private companies could be invited to complete the rollout.

Tailor-made telecommunications plans for rural and regional areas was also slated as another option to be considered.

The central tenets of the report were essentially to ensure telecommunications services in the bush had parity with met- ropolitan services.

Although The Nationals no longer oppose Telstra's privatisation, the report stated ongoing government involvement, through the control of infrastructure, would allay fears of bush services slipping under private control.

It was also suggested the consumer watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, be given greater powers to prevent any stifling of competition.

"We want to make sure the legislation we put through, which will control the telecommunications area, will make sure we have competition," Page MP Ian Causley said from Canberra yesterday.

Just hours after the report's release, Prime Minister John Howard said its suggested options would be considered in the ongoing debate over Tel- stra's privatisation.

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