CANBERRA: The Australia federal government is to hand over A$958 million ($807m; €602m; £406m) to fund the expansion of broadband across the country's wide open spaces.

Prime Minister John Howard, hoping to sweeten voters before this year's general election, announced the money is to be awarded to a joint venture between Singapore Telecommunications' local unit, Optus, and Futuris's Elders division.

The companies will be expected to invest another A$917 in the new network which, pledges Howard, will give 99% of the population Down Under high speed online access by the middle of 2009.

The move has infuriated Australia's dominant telco Telstra - once state owned - which missed out on the regional roll-out tender.

It warns that the government is handing over public money to a foreign-owned rival to deliver broadband with unproven technology.

However, communications minister Helen Coonan insists: "I am confident the government has got the balance right and that this new network will be an enormous productivity boost across Australia."

In addition, a special panel has been appointed to assess rival bids for a fibre network in metropolitan areas.

Data sourced from Sydney Morning Herald; additional content by WARC staff