Is it too late to save the NBN?

Labor's national broadband network is dead and buried but the Coalition's watered-down version runs the risk of going down the same path.

Time is running out for the new NBN Co chief executive, Bill Morrow, to prevent the National Broadband Network from becoming a national embarrassment. Or is it already too late?

It is only a matter of time before damning pictures and videos of the pitiful state of the NBN construction effort become the focus of national media attention.

Any potential future Royal Commission should reserve ‘exhibit A’ for the pictures and videos of unacceptable fibre installations into premises doing the rounds.

To witness the construction mess unfolding across the nation is truly a tragedy of epic proportions that no one in the telecommunications industry wanted to see but, like a train wreck already in motion, appears unstoppable.

The extent of the problem is unknown, but is becoming widely discussed and potentially the biggest problem facing NBN Co today.

Some of the NBN retail service providers have taken it upon themselves to carry out fibre installation remediation work at their own expense because they know that customers will be unhappy with the service provided over the shoddy fibre installations being carried out by some contractors.

Is the lack of post-installation inspections further justification that building an all-fibre network was overly ambitious and simply beyond national capability, expertise and experience? Or is the NBN yet another example of construction companies failing to hold up their end of the deal?

Did the previous government overreach itself when it decided to bypass a multi-technology mix NBN and attempt to roll out a national fibre access network?

And did the previous government give in to pressure from self-interested telecommunication industry lobby groups who wanted faster action taken to reduce Telstra’s dominance of the fixed network infrastructure at a time when wiser heads advised the government to work with Telstra to bring about an incremental upgrade to fixed infrastructure?

The legislative and regulatory environment necessary for substantive change to the telecommunications industry has not been successfully implemented. On June 10 Stephen King, a former Commissioner of the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission, in describing the current regulatory fiasco, asked the question: “Has there ever been a bigger policy mess than the NBN?”

Criticism of the construction approach adopted by NBN Co remains, and it falls to the new NBN Co management team to explain what is being done to correct the failed construction processes.

Or is the new NBN Co management team hoping that the multi-technology mix NBN 2.0 will be miraculously different from the fibre rollout mess?

And where are the 10,000 new workers necessary for the MTM NBN 2.0 going to come from? Because without a substantial workforce mobilisation the MTM NBN 2.0 won’t be completed before 2030, the same year the national fibre rollout would have been completed.

Or is NBN Co simply going to hook up the existing HFC networks to the NBN and say “Look -- job done!” Heaven help consumers if this is the approach taken.

The point here is the construction companies that will be employed to do the MTM NBN 2.0 will be the same companies currently rolling fibre, and skilled workers are already in short supply. This has been an ongoing reason used to justify the slow fibre rollout.

Over the past nine months NBN Co has had a new board and management team appointed.  Chief operating officer Greg Adcock, who was appointed in the initial management shake-up after last year’s federal election, has recently had Dennis Steiger join his team as the company’s chief technology and security officer. Mr Steiger’s previous appointment was with Canadian telco Shaw Communications, where he gained extensive experience running an HFC-based network.

But does anyone at NBN Co realise the need to review the construction approach which is costing too much, failing to achieve rollout targets and leaving a residue of poor installation work that will become a boat anchor holding NBN Co back and be the cause of criticism for decades to come?

And why has the fibre rollout stalled in the past nine months? It would be great to be told that the fibre rollout slowdown was due to a review of the construction process but there is no publically available evidence that this is the case.

The Australian Financial Review last week reported that the actual rollout figures provided by NBN Co are made “more dubious by the fact that over 118,338 Service Class One premises are unable to get a service because the fibre optic cabling is simply not ready -- often waiting for up to a year before internet service providers can connect them”.

So when will the new NBN Co management team take responsibility for what is happening?

On June 9, the AFR reported that the NBN rollout was now treading water waiting for the Telstra agreement to be renegotiated.

And undoubtedly Telstra will be waiting for the Independent Cost Benefit Analysis and Review of Regulation, chaired by Dr Michael Vertigan, to end.

Can the Vertigan committee pull a rabbit out of the hat, fix the NBN mess and provide the Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull with a ‘how-to’ guide? Turnbull certainly needs help as his pre-election comic strip on providing the nation with no less than 25 Mbps by the end of 2016 has certainly kept us all in rapture.

Unfortunately the construction malaise falls outside the committee’s remit so the NBN Co senior management team will need to step up and provide guidance on how the MTM NBN 2.0 rollouts will occur without replicating the fibre rollout disaster.

How long does it take for a senior management team to settle in to their new positions, get a handle on what is going on and (a) see that a problem exists, (b) decide to do something about it and (c) let everyone know what they’re doing?

Six months is long enough. Time is up.

Turnbull made a commitment to provide greater transparency into the day-to-day workings at NBN Co and how NBN Co was going to turn around the flailing fibre rollout.

The question then for NBN Co boss Bill Morrow is, “What is being done to correct the flawed construction processes, how will the MTM NBN 2.0 be completed before 2020 given worker shortages and when will premises with fibre installation be inspected and remediation work carried out if necessary?”