NBN review shows time is on Turnbull's side

Turnbull's NBN review will provide little comfort to the ALP but its more rigorous cost-benefit analysis will allow NBN Co chair Ziggy Switkowski to establish a realistic timeline for the Coalition's strategy.

There is more than a touch of irony in Mike Quigley urging his successor, Ziggy Switkowski, not to waste his time with the review of the national broadband network commissioned by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Meanwhile, Turnbull’s shadow Jason Clare has displayed more than a touch of chutzpah (and perhaps some masochistic tendencies) in calling for the first of those reviews to be released immediately.

Quigley told a forum in Sydney on Monday that his advice to the new NBN Co management was that they had not a minute to waste.

‘’Don’t waste your time being party to a rewriting of the FTTP business case using nonsensical assumptions aimed to prove a pre-determined outcome that will only further politicise the project – and ultimately delay it,’’ he said.

That’s a bit rich, given that the NBN he was instructed to build with a $37.4 billion budget was dreamed up by Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy without any meaningful evaluation of its cost and benefits before they committed to it.

Had Quigley had the benefit of the reviews Turnbull and Switkowski will be able to draw on – which will include a postmortem on Quigley’s NBN to understand both its gestation and why its roll-out is so far behind schedule and over-budget – the history of the NBN might be somewhat different.

The 60-day review of the NBN rollout given to Turnbull this week will inevitably conclude that the rollout is in utter disarray.

Switkowski summed up the state of the roll-out perfectly at a Senate hearing last week.

‘’We are three years into the roll-out and two years behind. Part of the problem has been a tendency to make heroic forecasts and miss them,’’ he said. 

Quigley effectively had to reverse-engineer and subsequently defend a business case for NBN Co and a network construction plan to fit a strategy already decided upon by his political masters. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that NBN Co has struggled to get within a ballpark of its projections.

Switkowski, who is already trying to lower expectations around the timelines for Turnbull’s NBN strategy, will be able to establish a more realistic set of projections built on rigorous analysis and data, as well as the experience NBN Co has had.

One of the several reviews Turnbull has said will be undertaken (but not the one handed to him this week) will be a six-month cost-benefit analysis of the NBN under his preferred strategy, which will include the prospective regulatory and ownership arrangements and the role of government. That kind of analysis would have been of great value to Quigley and his team.

Clare has called for the immediate release of the review that Turnbull has received from NBN Co’s new team, an analysis led by former senior Telstra executive and NBN Co’s new head of strategy and transformation JB Rousselot. Turnbull’s office has said it expected to release the review’s findings – with some redactions for commercially sensitive information – by the end of the year.

The reason why it is a bit rich for Clare to call for the review's immediate release is that Labor was supposed to receive NBN Co’s most recent iteration of its business plan back in May. It had been handed it well before the federal election, but wouldn’t release it publicly on the basis that it remained in draft form.

Given that Turnbull’s review is going to be damning of the state of the roll-out – and damaging to Labor – it is a near-certainty that its findings will be released very publicly. Why Clare would want to bring that moment forward is a mystery.