Pink batts and national broadband networks

The Coalition will need a standing army of NBN Co subcontractors to make fibre to the node work and this carries similar risks to those of Labor's ill-fated insulation scheme.

One of the running sores for the current government has been the 2008 home insulation scheme where, rightly or wrongly, the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and former minister Peter Garrett were blamed for the deaths of poorly trained installers employed by contractors.

Should the Coalition win the upcoming Federal election, a standing army of NBN Co subcontractors will be needed across the nation to complete the last few metres of connections under the Malcolm Turnbull’s fibre to the node broadband plan. This carries similar risks to those the Labor government encountered with their insulation scheme. 

In Allan Hawke’s April 2010 review of the ‘pink batts’ scheme, the retired public servant identified the underskilled and poorly trained workforce installing the insulation oblivious to known fire and other safety risks as being the key problem in the scheme.

As NBN Co has found, a similar shortage of skilled workers has also bedevilled the broadband rollout and has become one of the key problems the company’s contractors are facing in delivering the project on time.

Presently the bulk of the work troubling the project has been on the distribution portion of the network, the far more labour intensive task of connecting individual households has barely started with only 70,000 of the planned twelve million premises connections so far been carried out.

Exacerbating this problem is the nature of the complex setup of the individual properties; as Simon Hackett described in Business Spectator last week, each connection requires a network terminating device, power supply, fibre wall outlet and electrical outlet socket.

The risk with nodes

Installing that equipment properly and safely will be a priority for NBN Co regardless of which rollout regime is used, but the risks of poor workmanship under the Liberal Party’s proposal are greater than the current model.

Finding competent and skilled workers is a challenge for NBN Co under the Labor Party’s fibre to the premises policy, however, the current scheme does have the advantage of a phased, planned installation regime as entire districts are connected.

The Liberal Party’s fibre to the node policy on the other hand means an ad hoc installation regime with NBN Co’s local contractors being engaged on an ‘as needed’ basis to dig up streets, run cables and make household connections.

As the Labor Party found with the pink batts scheme, managing such a program while ensuring standards are met is beyond the resources and skills of Australian government agencies and the firms they contract to carry out such works.

This was illustrated with the asbestos problems encountered by Telstra during NBN remediation works where poorly qualified and unsupervised contractors failed to follow basic safe working guidelines.

Despite asbestos remediation being an established part of construction, telco and civil engineering works for thirty years, low skilled subcontractors still manage to ignore – or more likely are blissfully ignorant of – both Telstra’s and NBN Co’s procedures on dealing safely with the problem.

The rot runs deep 

This situation is barely surprising given modern Australian corporatist ideology of tendering out work to a major contractor who in turn engages the lowest cost operator to actually deliver the work, with every party trusting that complex legal arrangements will protect them from any responsibility or liability should the underpaid subbie fail to deliver.

In the corporate sector, this arrangement tends to work quite well as we regularly see managements and boards deflecting the blame for failure of major capital works projects to their contractors or other malign forces – IT being one area particularly notable for this.

Unfortunately in politics that deflection of responsibility doesn’t work so well as Rudd and Garrett found when they, somewhat unfairly, carried much of the blame for the tragic deaths of young workers installing the subsidised insulation and the house fires which resulted from poor workmanship.

For Malcolm Turnbull, the Liberal Party’s NBN policy poses similar risks as poorly trained, low cost subcontractors dig up the nation’s footpaths and drill holes into homes with scant regard for ‘dial before you dig’ checks, asbestos ductwork or the location of electrical and other services in the premises being connected.

One key difference between Rudd’s Pink Batts scheme and Turnbull’s National Broadband Network is time frames. In Allan Hawke’s review of the Home Insulation Program he identified hasty decisions as being the cause of poor planning.

At least with Australian telecommunications policy hasty – as opposed to poor – decisions are not the problem and with the Liberal Party promising a raft of reviews into the NBN project should they be elected later this year, we’ll only see more delay as the ashes from thirty years of poor policy are sifted.

Hopefully, one of the lessons Malcolm Turnbull will take from those NBN reviews is not to fall for the same fate as Peter Garrett did with the home insulation scheme.

Paul Wallbank is one of Australia's leading business and technology bloggers, his business Netsmarts helps organisations adapt to the new ways of doing business online.

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