New Aussie gov't to expand broadband

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SYDNEY -- Australia's new Labor government is expected to move quickly on an AUS$4.7 billion ($4 billion) investment in a high-speed national broadband network in the wake of Saturday's stunning general election victory Saturday.

A key plank in the campaign of Prime Minister-elect Kevin Rudd was his plan for national broadband network that will reach 98% of Australia's 20 million residents and be built with public and private funds totaling AUS$8 billion ($7 billion).

Media companies have criticized the low penetration and slow speed of Australia's current broadband network.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranks Australia's broadband penetration -- about 49% of the population -- at 16th in the world.

Stephen Conroy, Labor's communications spokesman, said in an interview prior to the election that a national broadband network "sits front and center" in Labor's media and communications policy.

"Australia's current broadband infrastructure doesn't support new media in the true sense," Conroy said. Labor's plan will help Australia "leap into the 21st century," he said.

Conroy also said Labor would set a firm date for the switch-off of Australia's analog TV broadcasting in order to drive the adoption of digital TV services. The outgoing government had been aiming for digital conversion by 2010-2012.

Conroy, widely tipped to take on the communications portfolio when Rudd announces his new ministry later this week, also will inherit the outgoing government's reform of media ownership rules and changes to the tax structures covering Australia's film and TV industry production funding -- changes that will give producers greater tax rebates. No changes are expected to those laws.

However, the TV sector is calling for some certainty on the allocation of funds for a new free-to-air digital kids TV channel. The outgoing government said earlier this month it will give the Australian Broadcasting Corp. AUS$83 million for such a channel. The pubcaster is well advanced with plans to launch a new kids service in April 2008. Labor has yet to match that funding promise.
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