NBN Co's matrix moment

Listening to the latest comments from NBN Co's senior management on the current state of the NBN does make you wonder about who's running the company.

If we listen to recent comments made by NBN Co chairman Ziggy Switkowski and the chief executive of NBN Co, Bill Morrow,  regarding the current National Broadband Network (NBN) plan one would have to ask who's running the company.

The current NBN Co team is certainly raising some key issues:

  • They have questions regarding some of the conclusions of the Vertigan report.
  • They are more positive about their new radically changed fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) model.
  • They are worried about the government allowing competition in the fibre-to-the-basement (FttB) space.
  • They have questions about the long-term financial constraints put on them by the government.

The question, therefore is – is it the company itself running the business, or is it the communications minister and his advisers?

The minister has consistently blamed the previous government for all the mistakes NBN Co made under its watch, but what will happen after the next election? Will a new government (if that is the outcome) have a similar right, to blame this government not only for a lack of vision but also for its own interference in the technical choices and other affairs of NBN Co?

From political ploy to full-blown policy

What was launched as a political attack on the previous government, a so-called faster and cheaper NBN solution based on the multi-mix technology, became full-blown government policy simply through the appointment of the right people – those who would agree with this policy – and the ensuing claim that this is indeed the best solution, despite the fact that international evidence paints a totally different picture.

In relation to ‘faster’ there have been ongoing delays, both with the numerous investigations and with the rollout – with further delays anticipated now well into 2015. While there is no doubt that good work has been done to fix the rollout problems that they inherited, it was very clear from the beginning that ‘sooner’ would be one of those political non-core promises.

While the minister has always claimed to be technology-agnostic and regularly steps back and says publicly that the technology choice is that of NBN Co, the company knows that the minister is absolutely committed to his own policy guidelines. So what is the difference here between the previous minister, Stephen Conroy, and Mr Turnbull in relation to the degree of political interference in the NBN?

A matrix moment for NBN Co

NBN Co remains a political football. It’s almost a matrix moment for NBN Co – choose the red pill or the blue pill. But we all know what happened to the previous NBN Co management team. Remember how quickly that team was ‘flushed’ when they were assessed to be determined to continually state ‘the inconvenient truth’.

This despite the fact that this same team was supported by all its partners and won the admiration of the Australian telecoms industry, as well as that of many outside Australia. The international press raved about Australia’s bold plan. Many held up the Australian NBN as a shining light – that it was actually grasping the nettle and realising that fibre was in fact a utility commodity.

The Australian initiative was instrumental in the formation of the UN Broadband Commission. And 70 per cent of the Australian population prefers the original plan.

So, were all those people wrong?

The same people are now shaking their heads at the farce it has become – a communications minister publicly supporting a study that states that a consumer will only need 15Mb/s in 2023.

This was also questioned by Bill Morrow. But was he allowed to look at his company’s own radically changed FttP plan that could indeed deliver FttP in a competitive way? And was NBN Co, for example, allowed to look at FttP rollout plans along the lines of the models used by Google in the USA (seeking active participation of their customers in planning their rollouts); or those used in the Netherlands (working with local councils that are eager to deliver FttP to their businesses and residents)? These are all cost-saving alternatives with a proven record overseas.

If the minister is genuine about being independent and serious regarding his own statement that FttP is the best end solution, why aren’t we investigating it?

This is an edited version of a post originally published on September 23. Paul Budde is the managing director of BuddeComm, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy company, which includes 45 national and international researchers in 15 countries.