NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley’s decision to offer the federal opposition an olive branch has inadvertently started a high stakes game that endangers his own position and may put the project back several years.
Speaking at an American Chamber of Commerce lunch in Sydney last Friday, Quigley made a plea for accurate reporting and a call for an industry study of all the technology options available for the project.
"It doesn’t appear there is now debate about the need for an NBN, the debate is around the competing technologies,” Quigley said.
So far, so good, but things got a tad complicated from here. With the project into its fourth year Quigley opened the door for discussion on which methods are best suited to connect the nation.
"There’s going to be an increasing debate regarding the best solution for Australia’s national broadband network.” Quigley said, "the choices we make about our nation’s underlying telecommunications infrastructure will have implications on the way Australians live, work and compete.”
"So having an open debate that weighs up the pros and cons of alternatives can only be a positive thing for the country.”
Not only were Quigley’ comments at odds with the stated position of the government, that fibre to the premises is the best technology for most of Australia, they also provided the opposition the perfect opportunity to berate Labor for drawing up NBN policy on the fly.
An opportunity the shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull isn’t about to pass up on in a hurry, especially if his latest invectives are anything to go by.
Studying suitable technology
The NBN Co CEO then went on to call for the Communications Alliance, the Australian telco industry’s peak lobby group, to carry out a study into the most suitable technology.
"NBN Co welcomes and supports the study that’s been considered by the Communications Alliance into the potential pros and cons of a range of policy and technology options and their impact on the future of the National Broadband Network.”
As earnest as Quigley’s call to pragmatism seems, the comments were clearly mistimed given that the alliance’s key members seemed less than impressed. A Telstra spokesman said that the issue would be raised at the group’s next board meeting and Optus has categorically stated that this isn’t a matter that it deems as being relevant to the industry body.
Communications Alliance CEO John Stanton issued a non-committal media release stating "the Board of Communications Alliance recently began to consider a potential project to look at future NBN issues, including access technologies and technological developments.”
"For such a project to proceed it would need to feature a broad and inclusive, evidence-based debate that could sit above the level of politics in this, an election year.”
A ‘cheap stunt’ that could prove costly
Any prospect of the NBN’s future being above politics has been dispelled by Turnbull who has gleefully branded Quigley’s call as "a cheap stunt to distract attention from NBN Co’s appalling record in executing the rollout.”
"This is the most bizarre twist yet in the debate over broadband policy,” Turnbull said on his website,
"Mr Quigley has made the announcement without obtaining the agreement of the Communications Alliance to commission the inquiry.”
As Turnbull points out, the project is four years into its design and construction with substantial amounts committed to design, equipment purchases and construction contracts.
NBN Co’s corporate plan estimates a total capital expenditure on the project of over three billion dollars by the end of this financial. It’s not clear how much of that spend would be affected by any changes to the scope of the project.
However, what’s clear is that a review of the nature of the rollout will have major ramifications for the designs completed and construction contracts committed to date.
The question now is whether these potential changes and delays are acceptable to NBN Co’s owner, the Federal government, who have maintained that fibre to the node is the most suitable choice after the tender for a national broadband to the node network failed in 2009.
Given that the Mike Quigley’s speech on Friday is at odds with both the Federal government’s policy, the stated position of NBN Co’s board and the company’s business plan the question now is whether the CEO can remain in his role.
For Australians, the bigger question is whether Canberra’s gridlocked politics can deliver the infrastructure necessary for the country to compete in the 21st Century economy.