A “COMMUNITY relations” visit by National Broadband Network Co to the Latrobe Valley on Friday backfired when it met with allegations of “ambushing” the region and “tearing (it) apart”.
NBN Co representatives met with various media outlets to unveil proposals for the potential delivery of high-speed, fixed wireless broadband to smaller communities in the region within the next year.
The visit was slammed by numerous sources who claimed NBN Co had failed to consult with the community over the identification of local sites for its 40 metre-tall mono-towers and had played neighbours off against one another in efforts to lock landowners into agreeing to accommodate the towers.
Though an NBN Co statement released on Friday said the company’s design and construction partners would “work with local government areas to identify appropriate locations” for its infrastructure, four separate planning applications had already been lodged with Latrobe City Council on 29 October for the erection of mono-towers in Hazelwood South, Jeeralang, Jeeralang Junction and Yinnar.
An NBN Co spokesperson confirmed applications had already been lodged in Latrobe but defended the move, telling The Express “we can’t go to council without a proposal, we have to be able to say ‘this is it (the proposal), would you be open to it?”
While NBN Co community relations adviser Tony Gibbs was keen to promote the benefits of a high speed service to areas long confined to limited internet access, the company’s actions preceding Friday’s visit were attracting widespread criticism.
Latrobe City Council chief executive Paul Buckley said while normal planning processes would apply to NBN Co’s recent applications, including a public advertisement period, council had been largely kept in the dark about the company’s plans.
“I received advice yesterday morning from NBN Co introducing themselves and letting me know what is happening in my area,” Mr Buckley said.
Referring to evidence the company had already surveyed local land, spoken with multiple landowners individually and identified its proposed tower sites, Mr Buckley said “I think to go out into the community prior to briefing the local council, and create anxiety and concern before making any formal announcements about the fact they are starting to plan for the network is really not the best community relations approach”.
Latrobe City councillor Dale Harriman was scathing in his assessment of NBN Co’s approach so far.
Of NBN Co’s attempts to secure sites on private land for broadband towers, Cr Harriman said he had fielded numerous calls from residents indicating the process was “destroying communities”.
Cr Harriman alleged NBN Co had tried to bargain down the cost of hosting towers by playing landowners off against one another.
“These are great, intimate communities and it is tearing them apart…it is doing more damage than the fires, at least then people pulled together”.
Claims of a “Dutch auction” were also levelled by Hazelwood South resident John Anderson who said site selection processes in his area had been divisive and conducted without genuine consultation with any of his neighbours. Mr Anderson said he now faced the prospect of a 40m tower being erected just 25m from his shed and 100m from his home, on an adjacent property.
“I am broadly supportive of the NBN project but not when it is being done on a site that has maximum disadvantage, inconvenience and damage… when there are other alternative sites not very far away,” he said.
He claimed direct efforts to convince NBN Co of the site’s inappropriateness led him to believe the company had no intention of budging unless its proposed planning process failed.
Mr Anderson said the NBN Co’s approach to date had seen the Latrobe Valley “ambushed” and “taken for granted”.
For its part NBN Co said its fixed wireless proposals, applicable only to “communities with low population density where it is impractical or uneconomical to rollout fibre optic cable”, were “subject to final planning and other approvals”.
Where approvals were granted it was expected facilities would “start to be switched on in stages from late 2013 to 2015,” Mr Gibbs said.
Mr Buckley said he expected there would be objections to at least some of the NBN permit applications, in which case the matter would go before a council meeting.
“It is our understanding NBN is willing to consult with interested parties,” he said.