This article is by independent journalist Jacob Atkins.
news The National Broadband Network Company is under fire for an alleged lack of community consultation as it rolls out fixed wireless infrastructure across parts of regional Australia, with local councils expressing frustration at what they say is an ‘apply first, consult later’ pattern of behaviour.
In June NBN Co announced it was constructing fixed wireless infrastructure across 42 local government districts in Victoria and Tasmania. The Dorset Council, based in Scottsdale in north-east Tasmania, on August 20 rejected, seven councillors to two, NBN Co’s application to build a 35-metre high wireless broadband tower on the town’s golf course. NBN Co will be appealing that decision at the Tasmanian Planning Tribunal.
At the council meeting, Councillor John Beswick strongly criticised NBN Co’s proposal, saying they had failed to meet their own standards. Beswick told Delimiter NBN Co’s planning scheme states that “wherever possible towers should be co-located on other infrastructure.” “NBN Co hadn’t looked sufficiently at already existing sites, instead settling on the unpopular golf course site,” he said. There is an Optus tower a few hundred metres from the proposed site, which Councillors believe would be able to accommodate the infrastructure.
A spokeswoman for NBN Co said that in relation to co-location of infrastructure, “unfortunately it is not always possible to find sites that fit our radio frequency requirements. We are not providing a mobile service, but designing a network to deliver a defined level of service. As a result there are some limits on the locations that can be used and still meet our performance standards.”
Beswick also criticised NBN Co for not taking seriously consultation with residents and the broader community. “They gave council a statement in June which included a commitment to community consultation,” he said. He claimed the statement contained a list of ten items relating to community consultation. “No-one seems to be aware of them having done any of those ten things. [NBN Co] need to get feedback from the community before they settle on a site. They seem to have lodged an application and then are waiting for the repercussions.”
The NBN Co spokeswoman said: “NBN Co submitted its plans in accordance with local planning requirements, and through that process the plans were subject to a community consultation process. Throughout the process NBN Co has addressed concerns from the Council and the local community.” Dorset Council communications manager Malcolm Reid also confirmed NBN Co had done all it had technically needed to do under the Planning Act.
Meeting requirements through local government process has also not been enough for some. On August 6, a closed meeting was held in Scottsdale between objectors to the tower and the two companies involved in the proposal, NBN Co and engineering firm Aurecon. Karen Seelig, present at the meeting and the only resident to receive a notification letter about the development, said the proposal representatives at the meeting “picked and chose what they wanted to comment on.”
The possible effects of electro-magnetic radiation from the tower were of chief concern among objectors, but no questions on this subject were allowed at the meeting. Seelig said the community members at the meeting felt rushed and had their questions brushed aside. “There was no response when asked if they would consider satellite [broadband],” she said. “They refused to answer my question about whether weather patterns would affect the tower, just saying ‘well if it snowed obviously that would affect its performance'”.
The NBN Co spokeswoman said that the company’s representative at the meeting, site acquisition manager George Tzakis, “openly addressed and responded to the queries raised.”
Dorset Planning Manager Wendy Mitchell chaired the meeting, said: “from my point of view it went well, the objectors were able to talk face to face with the proponents and discuss issues concerning them.” While wary of speaking on behalf of NBN Co, she added: “I think the NBN is committed to community consultation when they think there are questions the community might have. They were under the assumption that the community didn’t have any questions.”
It is thought that the company may have tried to sniff the community breeze from a non-local planning consultant no longer engaged by the council. There were 7 objectors to the proposal and Seeling gathered more than 200 petitions opposing the tower.
The rejection follows a bitter stoush earlier this year between the government-owned entity and Golden Plains Shire in Victoria, where similar claims of negligible community consultation were levelled. Golden Plains mayor Geraldine Frantz said at the time: “NBN Co.’s claims that they have taken the time to adequately engage with the community… are simply not correct.”
After that Council rejected NBN Co’s proposal, NBN Co did not seek alternative sites and instead sent letters to residents saying they would be receiving slower satellite broadband instead. Frantz accused NBN Co of bullying the Shire into accepting their proposal or face being downgraded to satellite. According to statements made by NBN Co chief Mike Quigley to The Age in January, the company is concerned that councils will get cheeky and think if they knock back fixed wireless, they will be upgraded to fibre.
In June Moorabool Shire near Ballarat also knocked back a tower proposal after community concern.
In its appeal to the Tribunal, NBN Co will argue it has been fully compliant with local and state planning requirements and that the golf course tower is critical to the network because it is intended to act as a transmission hub for nine other towers in the region.
Independent Member for Denison, Andrew Wilkie, was previously thwarted in attempts to stretch the public consultation period for proposed mobile phone and wireless towers to 30 days through an amendment to the Telecommunications Act. “Clearly 10 or even 14 days is not enough time for people to gather information and prepare a detailed response,” he said. “Local communities have to live with these huge towers and they deserve a reasonable timeframe to make a comment.”
The spats look set to continue as NBN Co seeks to set up a network of fixed wireless infrastructure in areas where it is unfeasible for fibre-optic cables to be laid down.
opinion/analysis (by Renai LeMay)
I have not investigated this issue as deeply as Jacob has. However, my analysis of the situation is that NBN Co does appear to be meeting all of the required regulations involving new mobile tower infrastructure and planning, but perhaps has not gone beyond those requirements quite far enough, in order to address community concerns about the issue, some of which can be quite wacky (for example, the electromagnetic issue, which has been continually shown scientifically to be a non-issue.
This is not an easy or homogenuous situation — in each different region, NBN Co will face slightly different concerns and issues, and I am not surprised to see these kinds of issues popping up. So has NBN Co really done anything wrong? Probably not. In general I do think the Australian public in general needs to adjust our expectations about this process. The wireless component of NBN Co’s rollout was never going to be easy or straightforward (the council planning process never is), and I would expect more of these kind of ‘speed bumps’ along the road.
From my perspective I feel as though NBN Co is getting most of this right, but there’s a little bit of turbulence in some regions. It is important to note that these community concerns do exist. Given how politicised the NBN rollout has been so far, if this level of community protest is all that NBN Co sees over the next several years as the wireless component is rolled out, I think the company will count itself lucky ;)