NBN rollout blues and a quiet Conroy

With NBN Co expected to miss its June target by a mile, Stephen Conroy has so far maintained a dignified silence. But one suspects that the communications minister will soon have some explaining to do on the NBN.

Stephen Conroy has had a tough time selling his media reforms package this week but while the communications minister has had a lot to say about that policy he has been remarkably quiet about the news swirling around the fate of the NBN rollout.

The news is unsurprisingly grim with the latest bout of speculation stating that NBN Co is unlikely to meet its stated target of getting the fibre past286,000 premises by this June. In fact, there is talk that NBN Co is not only reassessing its target but is also getting ready to release a new target, one that will warrant plenty of explanation from NBN Co and Conroy.

We will have to wait and see whether NBN Co is willing to bite the bullet now and immediately release the revised figures or choose to prolong the anguish until June. Either way current evidence would seem to suggest that the target of 286,000 premises is unreachable.

I for one would like to be proved wrong on this, I want to believe that NBN Co can somehow pull off a rollout on steroids and connect in excess of 3200 premises a day in the three months. Unfortunately, back in the real world the list of problems and excuses has only grown longer and in turn jeopardised the very existence of the project.

The main problems that have stymied progress from the very start have been a shortage of skilled labour in rollout areas, the greater than expected level of remedial work needed to fix collapsed conduits, and the fact that the rollout is currently in the hands of those who are simply not incentivised to tackle the complexities associated with taking the fibre to every single home.

The one positive for NBN Co and Conroy is that the expected sacking of Syntheo as an NBN contactor has failed to eventuate. While Syntheo has handed over its responsibilities in the Northern Territory directly to NBN Co, it is still committed to working with it in Western Australia and Southern Australia.

At least that prevents NBN Co and Conroy from having to answer some seriously pointed questions about recouping advance payments from Syntheo and the prospect of having to renegotiate new agreements with other construction partners.

So NBN Co is now in control of building the network in the Northern Territory and there are some who reckon this is the first sign of intent from the company to eventually bring the majority of this work under its wing. Giving Syntheo the boot across the three states would have certainly pointed to such a scenario but for now it looks like business as usual for NBN Co. That is until it comes clean on the rollout figures.

As fibre-to-the-premises rollout was always going to be an arduous process and despite NBN Co’s earnest efforts to provide updates, the idea that the June target is achievable requires a substantial leap of faith on the part of the public. It is also the single biggest facilitator of letting the Coalition get away with providing little meaningful information on its NBN alternative.

Conroy’s silence on the issue, while understandable, adds an extra layer of scrutiny on a project that is teetering on the edge. A level of scrutiny that a beleaguered Labor Party can do without. However, I suspect Conroy will have a lot of explaining to do on the NBN very soon. 

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