The Australian government has appointed Paul Fletcher, a former Optus Director, as the new Communications Minister — responsible for advising cabinet and regulating projects from 5G to ‘smart cities’.
Telecommunications giants have welcomed the new announcement, while many critics are calling the appointment a fundamental conflict of interest after a long history of involvement in the industry.
Paul Fletcher has been announced as the new Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, replacing Mitch Fifield, who is moving to New York following his appointment as Australia’s Ambassador to the United Nations.
The newly re-elected Morrison government announced the cabinet after the election win, saying Fletcher will be focusing on social media and cyber safety issues at the start of the new parliament.
The role will expand to include all facets of the telecommunications and cyber world, including new 5G rollout and ‘smart city’ initiatives, online content blocking, ‘anti-terrorism’ measures and more.
Fletcher takes the role as the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) prepares to hand down its Digital Platforms Inquiry report, which is expected to recommend dramatic changes to regulations governing global online services, including Google and Facebook.
The nation’s media industry has overwhelmingly welcomed Fletcher as the the new minister to lead communications under the new government.
After doing a little research, this reception should come at no surprise, as a web of connections to telecommunications giants is quickly revealed.
Many digital experts have brought into question concerns of potential conflicts of interest at a critical period of Australia’s digital expansion.
FORMER OPTUS DIRECTOR
According to his official background page, Paul was the former Director of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs at Optus for eight years, before venturing into the industry himself.
In fact, public corporate press releases from his time at Optus are still available for public viewing, giving an insight into his understandings of the inner-workings of the industry.
He can also be found in the mainstream press prior to joining parliament as a key expert and figurehead of the telecommunications world — regularly weighing in on important issues.
Fletcher established the initial implementation of the Mobile Black Spot Program, and helped introduce a number of deregulatory reform measures.
Furthermore, he would also go on to start Fletchergroup Advisers, a consultancy firm focusing on the communications industry.
Now, as Minister of the Department of Communications and the Arts, Fletcher will lead up a department that acts as the Australian government’s key advisor on communications.
The agency is responsible for regulatory management, program and grants management, as well as engagements with stakeholders including Australia Post, NBN Co, ABC, SBS and regulator ACMA.
Many experts have expressed concerns about potential conflicts of interest that may arise from the appointment, primarily given Fletcher’s prior involvement in many industries and companies he will now regulate as Communications Minister.
It is also important to mention that Paul served as parliamentary secretary to Turnbull when he was Minister for Communications from 2013 to 2015, during NBN disasters that unfolded.
Fletcher also served as Minister for Urban Infrastructure in 2016 and Minister for Urban Infrastructure and Cities in 2017, playing a role in the development of national ‘smart city’ initiatives.
The new minister was also appointed to the new Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network earlier this year.
Fletcher’s connections to the telecommunications industry, the NBN plan and key projects relating to the development of Australia’s digital markets, have drawn concern as priorities now switch to 5G.
5G IS THE NEW FOCUS
The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) has urged the incoming minister to act to address the challenges and opportunities for the Australian telecommunications sector.
In a statement, ACCAN CEO Teresa Corbin spoke on the role Fletcher will have moving forward”
“From the rollout of 5G, to the anticipated completion of the NBN network, we look forward to working with Minister Fletcher during this exciting time to achieve better outcomes for consumers”.
To this end, Optus Vice President of Regulatory and Public affairs, Andrew Sheridan, said in a statement the telco was expecting to work with Mr Fletcher and the government “on decisions critical to Australia’s 5G future such as more effective, efficient deployment rules for 5G”.
Optus keen to work with him? Go figure.
In March, Optus called for sweeping changes in the way planning approvals worked for the new networks’ physical sites, warning the current costs of site approval and access could be “prohibitive”.
The technology for 5G requires a rollout of thousands of small cells rather than larger base stations, requiring more approvals.
A Telstra executive has also urged Fletcher to speed up the sale of millions of dollars worth of radio wave spectrum to telecommunications companies to bolster the rollout of 5G mobile networks before the 2020 completion.
Telcos buy access to the different radio waves through an auction process for transmission rights held by the communications regulator. The major mobile providers splashed out hundreds of millions of dollars to secure 5G-compatible frequencies in December.
Telstra is ramping up its 5G network with 10 city CBDs now connected to the new technology and 35 expected to be connected within the next 12 months.
Furthermore, Huawei will push for a meeting between top Australian executives and the newly appointed minister to heap pressure on the government as the equipment giant doubles down on claims it will be a global 5G leader.
The Turnbull government blocked Huawei from participating in Australia’s developing 5G mobile network on security grounds in 2018.
Over the coming months, Fletcher will no doubt play a major role in the expanding 5G expansion, which has plans to roll out to more capital cities, regional centres and other high demand areas.
Given the telecommunications spider web Fletcher has been entangled in for over a decade, how can Australians trust the newly appointed minister to put the interests of citizens first?
Only time will tell. Stay tuned for our website for further developments.
Former Optus Director – About Paul Fletcher | Paul Fletcher MP
Funny or Serious? Telstra’s Public Affairs Strategy since mid 2005 | Paul Fletcher, Optus Speech
Fletcher appointed to Parliamentary Joint Committee to Oversee NBN | Paul Fletcher MP
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