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Penn maintains InfraCo allows Telstra to be part of NBN privatisation

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Image: Asha McLean/ZDNet

Telstra CEO Andy Penn has told the National Press Club on Wednesday that the establishment of InfraCo — the infrastructure arm of Telstra — will allow it to be a part of any National Broadband Network (NBN) sell off.

The plan with NBN since its creation was to eventually privatise it, even though the method is still left to debate, however any company involved in a potential transaction would need to not be a retailer.

Penn maintained on Wednesday that InfraCo was enough for Telstra be involved, and that Telstra, the ACCC, and the government were “very aligned on this point”.

“If Telstra were ever to play a role in that transaction, then we could only do so … via our infrastructure business being separated from our retail business, if I could describe it that way,” he said.

“What Telstra is doing is basically putting itself in a position that is, something that we have the capacity to be a party to or participate in, in the future, by establishing InfraCo in the way in which we are.”

Penn’s words contrast with those of Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, who earlier this month told ABC Radio that structural separation was not enough.

“Under the law as it stands, Telstra as the provider of retail broadband services would not be permitted to own the NBN,” he said.

“That’s actually a pretty uncontroversial proposition. There’s not much party political contention on that.”

Fletcher said his thoughts reflect the advice of economists and competition policy experts, and ensured the broadband network was not owned by a “monopoly player with market power”.

“That’s why the structure is have a single, national wholesale provider of fixed-line broadband services, and then all of the retail service providers are free to deliver services over it and they’ve got the relationship with the customer,” he said.

Telstra and NBN are currently pointing to each other as the source of high broadband wholesale prices in Australia.

On Tuesday, Penn said it was unprofitable for retailers to resell NBN at current prices.

“An industry where wholesale prices result in zero margins for the downstream retail providers is unsustainable,” Penn said.

“It will result in higher retail prices, reduced competition and retail providers looking for ways to bypass the NBN altogether — which is bad for customers and bad for the industry.”

NBN CEO Stephen Rue returned serve on Wednesday, describing the wholesale price debate as “the industry gnashing about NBN Co’s pricing model”.

“Let’s not forget that the sum of all NBN Co payments to Telstra was around AU$2 billion this year,” Rue said.

“Our Corporate Plan points to a continuing payment to Telstra for access to ducts, dark fibre and facilities of AU$1 billion annually from FY21, representing 20% of forecast revenues, and continuing for decades after the build is completed.

“This has an obvious impact on wholesale prices.”

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2021 Volkswagen Arteon Review – Style with a side of exclusivity

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If it takes something special to stand out in the sedan segment right now, then from across the parking lot at least the 2021 Volkswagen Arteon has a lot going for it. In sharp SEL R-Line form, and with not-quite-black Urano Gray paintwork, VW’s four-door coupe may be a fancier hatchback if you want to get down to brass tacks, but seldom do they look quite so sinuous.

It’s a marked exception to a VW sedan range which is probably best described as conservative in its design language. Volkswagen may not have vocally given up on four-door passenger cars like some of its rivals, but the Jetta and Passat cling to a sober, eminently mature aesthetic that pairs their affordability with earnest practicality.

Not so the 2021 Arteon, a mustache-twirling debonaire rogue in comparison, or as much as you can be with a starting price of $36,995 plus destination. By the time you step up to the SEL R-Line trim with 4MOTION all-wheel drive you’re at $44,590 (including the $1,195 destination). That’s still hardly bank-breaking when you consider you could park it next to an Audi A5 Sportback and – if you masked the badge off first – probably find passers-by torn between the two.

Standard is a 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder engine with an 8-speed automatic transmission. 268 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque are not figures that will tear the eyebrows from your face with the Arteon’s acceleration, but neither do they leave the sedan slow. 0-60 mph comes in the mid-6-seconds, though the gearbox prefers to upshift early and avoid downshifts if at all possible.

That probably helps the improvement in fuel economy – now clocking in at 20 mpg in the city, 31 mpg on the highway, and 24 mpg combined, which seemed straightforward to hit in my testing – but not with any sense of urgency. There are paddle shifters to override things, or you can notch the gearshift back to put the transmission into Sport mode where things get a little more eager, though not by too much.

Driven more maturely, however, and the Arteon’s charms flow more readily. The combination of AWD, VW’s cross differential system, and adaptive chassis control leave the sedan smooth and composed. Out in the Midwest ice, the only things leaving me cautious were the thicker ridges of unplowed snow, where the car’s low ride height proves to be the main spoilsport to otherwise excellent winter manners.

It’s predictable, in the best possible way. The steering is nicely weighted, and there’s a noticeable transition between suspension compliance in the Comfort setting through to firmer territory when you switch to Sport. You can get bigger, 20-inch wheels, but the 19-inch alloys with all-season rubber on my test car did a solid job of balancing looks while avoiding a lumpen ride.

Even base cars get blind spot monitoring and rear traffic assist, forward collision warning and emergency front braking, pedestrian monitoring. The SEL throws in adaptive cruise control, dynamic road sign display, lane assistance, and front and rear parking sensors.

Inside, things are well specified if a little dark. You get leather on the seats and steering wheel, plus tri-zone climate control, heating for the front seats, and an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system with wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. There’s also a wireless charging pad, remote start, and a fully-digital driver display. You’d not be wrong in comparing all that to what Audi offers on that aforementioned A5 Sportback, and noting with alarm just how much more the Arteon’s sibling would cost you for it.

My advice would be to skip the Titan Black interior trim, and go for the Florence Brown or Stone and Raven – brown and cream, respectively – finishes instead, which should help lighten things up. Standard across the board are VW’s favored touch-sensitive controls, which feature on both the steering wheel and the center console. I’m sure, given more time, I’d develop the muscle memory for just the right amount of pressure-and-swipe required to adjust temperature, volume, adaptive cruise control speed, or whatever else without overshooting, but until then prepare to be frustrated (and constantly wiping away smudges).

The unexpected boon is in practicality. Usually, these coupe-inspired sedans trade cabin and cargo space for their sleeker roofline, but the Arteon manages to buck that trend. There’s 27.2 cu-ft of space in the trunk, and that hatchback makes taking advantage of it far easier than, say, with a Passat. Drop the 60/40 split rear seats, meanwhile, and it expands to a cavernous 56.2 cu-ft. Even rear passenger space can accommodate full-sized adults, just as long as they’re more leggy than anything else.

2021 Volkswagen Arteon Verdict

At a time when the best most mainstream automakers can say about the sedan category is that they’re well-placed to take advantage of a shrinking audience, the 2021 Arteon is oddly compelling. It’s a reminder that VW is not only capable of building high-quality, sleekly designed cars, but that there’s still room to impress beyond the status-quo of crossovers and SUVs. Nothing else in Volkswagen’s line-up looks as dashing, quite frankly.

No, there’s no electrified option, and no, the performance isn’t going to turn you into a stop light drag racer. At least, not one who wins. But the Arteon’s composed manners, cosseting and capacious cabin, and handsome curves give it some real personality. I suspect it’ll never be a volume seller, but perhaps that only adds the allure of rarity to its list of pros.

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Volvo marshals hype and humility on the electric car precipice

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Volvo has big plans to go electric but, as Kermit the Frog so memorably sang, “it’s not easy being green.” The new C40 Recharge is an early step in the Swedish automaker’s aggressive roadmap to ditch internal combustion entirely by 2030, but its handsome four-door coupe styling wraps around some of the big underlying challenges that Volvo hopes time, patience, and a little marketing magic will hopefully address.

The 2022 C40 Recharge certainly looks the part. Sibling to the XC40 Recharge crossover, yet borrowing some of the rakish aesthetics of its not-too-distant cousin, the Polestar 2, the car has some genuinely charming design elements like the distinctive rear light clusters. It should also, Volvo being Volvo, score highly when it comes to safety.

Where things get a little shakier are when you do the inevitable comparisons with other electric cars, either on the market today or due in the near future. Price, range, and charging support are the three key metrics there, and though Volvo is yet to talk dollars, in the other two categories it has some explaining to do.

It’s fair to say that, when the XC40 Recharge got its official range number from the US EPA, there was some disappointment. Expectations had already been lower than initial the 249+ mile estimates for the WLTP cycle – which tends to be more flattering to EVs than the US’ testing routine – but the 208 miles the electric crossover was finally rated for still came as a surprise, given the not-insubstantial 78 kWh battery pack.

The bad news is that would-be C40 Recharge drivers shouldn’t expect much of a change there. We’re still some way from having the official range numbers for the new EV, but Volvo’s preliminary estimate is around 210 miles, or basically in line with what the XC40 Recharge could manage. No great shock, really, given the underlying architecture and platform of the two cars are the same.

There’s a mixture of defiance and realism within Volvo about just how competitive that leaves their cars. 78kW is “the right amount” for an EV, brand manager Joe Haslem insists, arguing that not only is the C40 Recharge “a second car primarily, for urban, suburban driving” but that the EPA numbers aren’t necessarily reflective of what the BEV can do.

“Range is different based on the testing cycle. We’re optimized for the WLTP cycle,” he points out. “If you kink the system and develop it also for the EPA cycle, you can get a car with a higher rating but actually has less usable range … We’re going to be better than some cars which have a higher rating than us from the EPA.”

Certainly, Volvo wouldn’t be the first automaker to criticize the EPA’s methods as unreflective of real-world use. All the same, there’s a recognition elsewhere in the company that stubbornly insisting that it is expectations which should change – not vehicles themselves – isn’t a long-term strategy.

“I think that there are some things that are purely physics and some things that are a great opportunity to work with,” Henrik Green, chief technology officer at Volvo, agrees. “We’re still looking at quite a chunky car … It has quite broad tires. This is our first iteration of a pure EV, this is our first generation out.”

“From now on we will obviously work with improvements, both on these cars [via OTA updates and] at the same time, we are also in parallel working with our second generation of pure EVs.” That’ll be SPA 2, the upcoming new Volvo platform “where we will also introduce our second generation of batteries, our second generation of heat pumps, our second generation of e-machines, that will be made, or be developed in-house,” Green says. “Here is part of the learning process for us, it’s no longer a world where you can buy off the shelf parts and make a cutting-edge solution.”

That duality of what’s possible today and what hopefully is coming further down the roadmap stands for charging, too. Volvo still has no plans to build its own charging network – “we are not so naive,” Anders Gustafsson, head of Volvo Car Group in the Americas, insists, “we are more into partnerships” – and will instead continue working with third-party providers. In the US, that means ChargePoint, though exact details on how that will differ from what any EV owner can sign up to with a free account is yet to be explained.

Still, the decision to limit DC fast charging support to 150 kW is a controversial one. “Putting 300 [kW] is a waste of capacity because it can never be used,” Volvo’s Haslem argues. As chief technology officer, Green is a little less strident.

“You can go back to the time when we decided that,” he says, “at that point in time 150 [kW] was probably the best that was out there.” As it stands, several of the larger networks in the US – including ChargePoint and Electrify America – have 300+ kW DC fast chargers available, with many more on the roadmap.

“I would also say that 150 [kW], there are faster chargers out there and we will go there in our second generation with more hardware capability,” Green concedes. “The access to the chargers are still the bottleneck, we lack that in Europe compared to the US.”

All the same, there’s still room for improvements even if you don’t support the very fastest DC charging rates on paper. “You are very rarely at the peak of your power as you’re charging,” Green points out. “How do you improve, that you extend as much as possible, the charging level with [that] 150 kW?”

We’ve seen an early example of that sort of tweaking over at Polestar, which recently began pushing out an OTA update for the Polestar 2 that – among other changes – massaged DC fast charger performance. Along with nudging the BEV’s maximum charging rate from 150 kW to 155 kW, the new software also promises to bring the Polestar 2 to its peak charging rate more rapidly, and hold it there for longer, thus maximizing efficiency during the time you’re plugged in.

Though Volvo is opening early placeholder reservations for the C40 Recharge in the US from today, we’re still a long way from vehicles actually going on sale and being delivered. Production isn’t expected to begin until the end of this year, and pricing will be confirmed closer to that point. The first customer cars are expected in the US sometime in Q1 2022.

That’s a long way off; according to Henrik Green, part of the reason for this very early unveil is to focus the minds of the Volvo workforce and make clear that they’re “dedicated for electric drive” and the transition ahead. You don’t need to be a pessimist to point out that the intervening time will not be more generous to the C40 Recharge’s specifications.

“We know that everyone is monitoring our investments into electrification,” CEO Anders Gustafsson acknowledges, “so we feel an even higher pressure that this needs to be a great car.” And certainly, there’s plenty to like about this return of the C-Series, from the leather-free interior, the care package that will see all owners get wear & tear items (bar tires) covered for the first five years of the vehicle, and the excellent – and still rare – Android Automotive OS infotainment system.

If Volvo can nail that user-experience side, then, there’s the possibility that owners and would-be owners will look beyond the on-paper criteria for EV success, like range and maximum charging rate. Volvo’s plans for things like helping with Level 2 home charger installation will help there, and the online-only sales – free of frustrating dealer haggling – could be timed just right, given our increasing comfort levels with internet purchases during the pandemic.

“As we see, the only viable solution today for long-term sustainability is pure electric,” Green, the Volvo CTO, says. “We fundamentally see that all cars will be purely electric, it’s just whether you’re at the forefront or the back end of that transformation.” Volvo wants to be at the front in EVs, and has the commitments on the roadmap to prove it. As the first XC40 Recharge cars arrive with their new owners in the coming weeks, and the order books eventually open on the C40 Recharge in the months after that, we’ll get a better idea as to just how well that transition will work in practice.

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2021 Volkswagen ID.4 pricing announced: VW’s first EV crossover starts at $41,190

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America is not getting the all-new VW ID.3 electric hatchback, but Volkswagen offers the 2021 ID.4 electric crossover as a worthy consolation. Boasting a near 50:50 front and rear weight distribution, aerodynamic styling, and abundant safety features, the 2021 VW ID.4 solidifies its position as an electric car for the masses with its $41,190 (including $1195 destination fees) base price.

What’s more, the newest VW ID.4 is eligible to receive up to $7,500 in federal tax credits, further lowering the entry cost. Qualified applicants can lease the 2022 ID.4 at $379 per month with a $3,579 downpayment in a 36-month lease period.

The 2021 VW ID.4 is available in four trim models. The base ID.4 Pro has a single rear-mounted electric motor producing 201 horsepower and 229 pound-feet of torque. It has an 82 kWh battery pack good for an EPA-estimated 250 miles of range. All VW ID.4s supports both AC and DC fast-charging, while a CCS (Combined Charging System) socket is standard across the board.

Using the onboard 11 kW charger refills the battery pack in around 7.5 hours. Meanwhile, you can replenish the battery pack from five to eighty percent in under 40 minutes with a 125 kW DC fast charging station. Additionally, the 2022 VW ID.4 comes with three years of unlimited charging via Electrify America.

Standard features in the base VW ID.4 Pro includes rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone climate control, wireless charging, wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, six-way adjustable seats with power recline, a heated steering wheel, heated seats, a 5.3-inch digital instrument cluster, ten-color ambient lighting, and a 10-inch infotainment display. Also standard are 19-inch aluminum-alloy wheels and front disk brakes (drum brakes for the rear), while the Gradient Package adds larger wheels and unique exterior trim for $1,500 more.

Meanwhile, the ID.4 Pro S starts at $45,690 and includes larger 20-inch alloy wheels, 30-color ambient lighting, 12-way power seats with massaging and memory functions, eight cupholders, and nifty smartphone pockets in the back of the front seats. All VW ID.4 models have six airbags and an impressive lineup of active safety features, including VW’s IQ.Drive Level 2 partially-automated hands-on driving, blind-spot monitoring, forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, and adaptive cruise control, to name a few.

Arriving later this year is the ID.4 AWD Pro ($44,870) and AWD Pro S ($49,370) with dual electric motors and more standard kit. The 2021 VW ID.4 1st Edition model has base prices at $45,190, but all first-edition models have sold out since last year.

The newest VW ID.4 comes with a comprehensive 4-years/50,000 miles standard bumper-to-bumper warranty, a 100,000-mile battery warranty, and a 2-years/20,000 miles carefree maintenance program. The first deliveries are arriving later this year.

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