14 May 2021
Our Ref: FOI 2021/54.10
FOI Application - processing charges decision
This correspondence is in response to your request made on 15 April 2021 under the Freedom of
Information Act 1982 (Cth) (FOI Act
), seeking a waiver of processing charges. Please see the attached
Statement of Reasons outlining my decision in that regard.
An FOI decision may be reviewed, subject to sections 53A and 54 of the FOI Act. Please refer to the Office
of the Australian Information Commissioner’s website at the following link, w
hich provides details about
your rights of review and other avenues of redress under the FOI Act.
If you have any questions or need to discuss your FOI application, please feel free to contact me on (02)
Yours sincerely Rohan Singh
Senior Legal Counsel
FOI Privacy & Knowledge Management
Freedom of Information Request – FOI 2021/54.10
Processing Charges Decision – Statement of Reasons
14 May 2021
is a government business enterprise (GBE
), which has the mandate of realising the Australian
Government’s vision for the development and operation of Australia’s new broadband network.
recognises that information is a vital and an invaluable resource, both for the company and
for the broader Australian community. That is why nbn
fosters and promotes a pro-disclosure
culture, with the goal of creating an organisation that is open, transparent and accountable. In
that light, members of the public will be able to find a large amount of information freely
available on our website at the following link: http://nbnco.com.au/.
manages its information assets within the terms and spirit of the Freedom of Information Act
1982 (Cth) (FOI Act). We also endeavour to release information proactively, while taking into
account our commercial and other legal obligations.
Subject to relevant exemptions, the FOI Act gives the Australian community the right to access
documents held by Commonwealth Government agencies, as well as “prescribed authorities”,
such as nbn
Under subsection 23(1) of the FOI Act, the Chief Executive Officer of nbn
has authorised me to
make decisions about access to documents and related determinations under the FOI Act.
Under section 29(8) of the FOI Act, I am required to provide a Statement of Reasons for my
decisions in relation to charges for FOI applications.
Application Chronology and Terms of Request
On 12 February 2021, nbn
received an FOI request from “ST” (the Applicant
), in the following
“I refer to the following two media releases:
As the media statements appear to not provide any reasoning as to why these areas are
selected, I am requesting the following information under the FOI act:
1. Any statement, documentation, or internal correspondence that that would show the
1.1: Explanations, reasons or rational as to why the areas mentioned in the media releases
have been selected as locations where the fibre network is to be extended.
1.2: Any areas that were considered but ruled out, and the rational behind this.
2. The split in technology types within the areas for both 1.1 and 1.2
3. If any parties external to NBN have been consulted on the areas selected in both 1.1 and
After correspondence with me seeking clarification of the request, the Applicant amended the
“a list of the criteria that nbn uses to take into account which has made them select all of
these areas that ultimately ended up selected
The wording “these areas
” means the two tranches of areas selected for fibre upgrade
as referenced in nbn
’s media statements dated 27 October 2020 and 10 February 2021,
which are referenced in your email sent 12 February 2021, being: Tranche 1:
• Belmont North, Charlestown, Toronto, Carramar, Castle Hill, Holsworthy, Liverpool, and
Wetherill Park in New South Wales;
• Lyndhurst and Narre Warren in Victoria;
• Acacia Ridge, Browns Plains, Eight Mile Plains and Oxenford in Queensland;
• Osborne in South Australia, and
• Cannington and Double View in Western Australia.
• Campbelltown, Elderslie, Narellan, Maitland, Singleton, Tarro, New Lambton, Bathurst and
Orange in New South Wales;
• Deer Park, Sydenham, Berwick South, Cranbourne and additional areas of Narre Warren
• Albany Creek, Ashgrove, Bald Hills, Ferny Hills, Robina, Burleigh Heads and Townsville
• Elizabeth, Gepps Cross, Salisbury and Golden Grove in South Australia, and
• Girrawheen, Kingsley, Wanneroo, Canning Vale and Jandakot South in Western Australia.
On 12 April 2021, I sent the Applicant an assessment of the processing fees for the application and
requested payment of an advance deposit.
On 15 April 2021, the Applicant requested a waiver of the processing fees on the basis of the
request being in the general public interest. In support of the fee waiver request, the Applicant
asserted as follows:
There is considerable interest in being able to subscribe to higher speed plans from users
who are on copper based technology - primarily FTTN.
As a result, numerous threads on Whirlpool (an online technology forum) have been
viewed by over 18,300 unique users with many discussing the upgrades and theorising the
logic. In addition, media have been reporting on the areas (e.g.
fibre-upgrade-560855). Given this large interest, it is clear that both users of Whirlpool,
the media and overall the general public would be interested to see the decisions that
were made to choose these areas, hence my request for the fee to be waived.
I made this processing charges decision on the date set out above.
A fee waiver is appropriate in the circumstances, and accordingly, the processing fees referenced in
my letter dated 12 April 2021 are not imposed.
Findings of Material Fact
As the decision maker, I made certain findings of fact in relation to the processing time required
to respond to this FOI request. In particular, I calculated a total (estimated) application cost of
$195. The calculation of the processing time took into account the time estimated to:
search and retrieve the subject documents;
conduct a preliminary review/reading of the documents, identifying relevant nbn
matter experts (SMEs
), setting up meetings with SMEs, drafting initial considerations of
potential exemptions, commercial considerations and other related questions before
meetings with SMEs;
conduct SMEs’ assessment and review, along with detailing commercial sensitivities and
confirmation of findings of facts with each SME, as well as file noting this information; and
complete the decision.
The total processing time included a statutory discount for the first five hours of decision-making.
In making the above estimate, I endeavoured to be as accurate as possible. In addition, I
considered paragraph 4.24 of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) FOI
I also took guidance from nbn
previous experience in responding to requests relating
commercial activities carve-out, noting that such matters tend to be complex and require
substantial assessment time by SMEs as well as review and FOI decision-making time.
In making my decision, I considered the Applicant’s contentions made in the fee waiver request. I
also reviewed relevant sections of the FOI Act, the Freedom of Information (Charges) Regulations
(the Charges Regulation
), the FOI Guidelines, case law and other relevant sources.
Decision and Reasons – nbn’s Charging Policy
Per regulation 8 of the Charges Regulation, a decision maker has the discretion to impose or not
impose a charge, or impose a reduced charge for the processing of an FOI request. nbn
developed an FOI charging policy in line with the FOI Act, the Charges Regulation and the FOI
Guidelines. In accordance with the FOI Guidelines at paragraph 4.3, nbn’s
does not impose FOI
processing charges in a manner that discourages applicants from exercising their rights to access.
seeks to ensure that its FOI charges fairly reflect the work involved in providing access
to documents on request.
adopted its charging policy in light of the company’s status as a GBE. Unlike Commonwealth
Government agencies, nbn
is expected to operate as a competitive commercial entity. The Commonwealth GBE Governance and Oversight Guidelines (January 2018)
make this clear. In
particular, the Guidelines’ “Mandate and Objectives” section indicates that the principal objective
for GBEs is to add to shareholder value. To achieve this objective, GBEs are required to operate
efficiently, at minimum cost for a given scale and quality of outputs, price efficiently and earn a
commercial rate of return, among other matters.
It is clear that nbn
has an obligation to operate according to sound commercial and business
practices. In that regard, good business practice dictates that nbn
should put a value on the time
spent by its staff and charge accordingly for its services. This reasoning applies equally to FOI
applications, which require input from dedicated FOI staff, together with the expertise and efforts
of other nbn
staff members such as SMEs. As such, FOI processing takes staff time away from core
commercial activities, which by definition, impacts on nbn
’s resourcing for those core commercial
activities, and therefore its ability to meet corporate targets. In that context, nbn
is obliged to
account for and place a value on staff members’ time in respect of FOI processing efforts - to do
otherwise would undermine nbn’s
obligations to operate as a commercial entity.
In relation to regulated FOI processing fees, the two most expensive activities are decision-making
($20/hour), and search and retrieval ($15/hour), which are roughly equivalent to current
Australian minimum wages. For reference - the national minimum wage is currently $19.84 per
hour. In that
context, it is reasonable to assume that commercial entities would charge
significantly higher rates for similar functions and tasks. It also follows that Government agencies
and GBEs also have much higher processing costs than those outlined in the Charges Regulation.
In fact, Commonwealth Government agencies and GBEs do incur significantly more costs than
those captured by the Charges Regulation. This was made clear in the OAIC’s Review of Charges
under the Freedom of Information Act 1983
(Cth) (February 2012) (OAIC Charges Review Report
In the OAIC Charges Review Report, the OAIC indicated the FOI charges only represented 2% of
the actual costs incurred by agencies and similar bodies since the Act’s commencement in 1982.
In light of the above points, entities subject to the FOI Act charge FOI processing fees at a
significant discount to the actual costs incurred. This appropriately reflects the importance of FOI
processes, particularly in respect of their role in helping to inform public debate. However, there
are a number of key public interests served by Government agencies and authorities having the
ability to charge for FOI processing time. In its Submission to the OAIC Charges Review, nbn
outlined its support of fees and charges and their importance to the FOI scheme, generally
reflecting the points made below.
Government agencies and authorities should be able to recoup some of their costs
associated with processing FOI requests, while - at the same time, providing key public
services, in accordance with user-pays principles.
The ability to charge for FOI processing time reflects Parliament’s and the community’s
recognition that public servants’ time is a valuable resource. Moreover, such resources
should only be spent in appropriate public undertakings. This argument could be applied
with greater weight to GBEs, which are expected to operate as any other commercial
entity in the marketplace. Similar reasoning applies to section 24AA of the FOI Act, which
enables decision makers to refuse requests that would substantially and unreasonably
divert agencies’ resources from their operations.
The ability to charge for the processing of FOI applications also ensures that applicants
have a serious interest in the subject matter and are likely to proceed with the application
to a final access determination. In addition, the requirement for a deposit tends to limit
the scope of preliminary work “written off” by government entities in the event that an
applicant were to withdraw an FOI request. This dovetails with the public interest in not
wasting government public resources, funded by Australian taxpayers.
At page 5 of the OAIC Charges Review Report, the OAIC reinforced the importance of fees
and charges, outlining that:
Fees and charges play an important role in the FOI scheme. It is appropriate that
applicants can be required in some instances to contribute to the substantial cost to
government of meeting individual document requests. Charges also play a role in
balancing demand, by focusing attention on the scope of requests and regulating those
that are complex or voluminous and burdensome to process.
In light of the above points, it is nbn’s
policy to charge applicants for FOI processing time.
charging policy also requires the company to examine every application on its
individual merits. As such, there may be grounds to exempt or reduce the processing fees for a
given FOI request. I explore those grounds further below.
Public Interest Grounds and Other Relevant Matters for Fee Reduction or Waiver
Subsections 29(4) and (5) of the FOI Act detail the process that agencies must follow if an
applicant contends that processing charges should not be imposed or reduced. Those sections
read as follows:
Where the applicant has notified the agency or Minister, in a manner mentioned in
subparagraph (1)(f)(ii), that the applicant contends that the charge should be reduced or
not imposed, the agency or Minister may decide that the charge is to be reduced or not to
Without limiting the matters the agency or Minister may take into account in determining
whether or not to reduce or not to impose the charge, the agency or Minister must take
whether the payment of the charge, or part of it, would cause financial hardship to
the applicant, or to a person on whose behalf the application was made; and
whether the giving of access to the document in question is in the general public
interest or in the interest of a substantial section of the public.
In addition, paragraph 4.99 of the FOI Guidelines
states that an “agency is entitled to consider
matters that weigh against those relied upon by an applicant.” Paragraph 4.99 of the FOI
Guidelines also lists a number of instances where it is appropriate to impose an FOI charge.
As outlined above, I am required to consider whether the payment of the FOI charge, or part of it,
would cause financial hardship to the Applicant. I note that the Applicant neither advanced
contentions in relation to financial hardship, nor provided evidence of financial hardship in
support of the fee reduction request. Accordingly, I am not convinced that payment of the FOI
charge would cause financial hardship to the Applicant.
Accordingly, the determining factor for a charges review is whether disclosure will be of general
or identifiable public interest. This is known as the public interest test (PIT
The Applicant alluded to there being general public interest in the subject matter of the request
when requesting a waiver of the FOI charge.
Given the scope and breadth of nbn
’s mandate, I accept that there is general public interest the
rollout of nbn
services. There is also some public interest in the general subject of copper to fibre
As to the question of whether there is general public interest in the specific information sought by
the Applicant so as to satisfy the PIT, nbn
staff reviewed various media sources. The objective
was to determine whether there was media coverage and online references relating to the
particular subject matter of the request, being the selection criteria used for Tranche 1 and
Tranche 2 as specified in the Applicant’s request, which have not previously been the subject of
an FOI decision by nbn
. Whilst not determinative, I find that media coverage and online
references prior to the date of the request did suggest that the relevant documents would be in
the general public interest, or in the interest of a substantial section of the public.
On balance, I am persuaded that a fee waiver is appropriate in respect of this request.
Accordingly, the processing fees referenced in my letter dated 12 April 2021 are not imposed.
The Applicant should note that nbn’s
FOI decision maker may still conclude that the documents
are exempt from the operation of the Act, per the commercial activities carve-out found at
section 7(3) of the FOI Act.
FOI decision maker may conclude nbn
will not release the documents, based
upon both general and conditional exemptions, the latter of which requires nbn
to apply the
public interest test in section 11B of the FOI Act. In that regard, please note that the public
interest test found at section 11B is similar to, but different from the PIT employed for the
purposes of deciding to reduce or not impose an FOI processing charge.
The Applicant should be aware that 19 days out of 30, had passed at the point at which this
application was suspended to request an advance deposit. The processing period will
recommence on the day the Applicant receives this notice.
If dissatisfied with this decision, the Applicant has certain rights of review. I have included details
regarding your rights of review and appeal in the covering letter provided with this Statement of