TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: NBN Co showdown

Mike Quigley's Senate hearing should be a handy precursor to his company's report later this month, while there are signs of NBN Co preparing for a life after Labor.

Technology Spectator

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A tough test for Quigley

NBN Co boss Mike Quigley is gearing up for perhaps his sternest test so far as he gets ready to face a Senate estimates hearing and provide it with the latest update of how the NBN rollout is progressing. The one obvious response to that question is ‘very, very slowly’, thanks to the time taken to structurally separate Telstra.

Without access to the telco’s pits, ducts and tunnels NBN Co couldn’t ramp up the rollout and the protracted regulatory process ensured that NBN Co had no chance of ever meeting its original target of having 150,000 connections by June 2012. The added responsibility of providing fibre to new, greenfield developments of more than 100 premises has proven to be another inhibitor and provided plenty of opportunities for critics to point the finger of blame at NBN Co and the federal government. With less than 10,000 Australians connected to the network and less than one thousand premises in new housing developments hooked to fibre, there’s no way around the fact that the numbers aren’t good. Of course it’s unclear just what Quigley can do about this other than manfully face up to the questions from the MPs at the hearing.

Presumably, there will be plenty from Quigley on the legitimate technical challenges faced by NBN Co and the fact that the company has been behind the eight ball from the very start. The real challenge for Quigley will be to convince the naysayers that the plan to link 3.5 million homes across Australia by mid-2015 is still on track and that the numbers are achievable. Actually, a more realistic target in Quigley’s mind is probably the 750,000 premises that need to be connected by October next year, before the federal election is called.

The showdown at the hearing should be a handy precursor to the revised business plan that NBN Co plans to deliver to the government by the end of the month. While it will almost certainly hold revised forecasts with regards to connections, The Australian Financial Review suggests that it may also flag a potential hike in the overall price of building the network.

Will Quigley stick around after the elections?

Whatever Quigley says tonight, it is safe to say that the Opposition will have plenty of ammunition to launch a fresh sortie at the Gillard government and the NBN. However, it will be interesting to observe the tone of the attack. A Coalition government cannot turn back the clock on the NBN, despite the slow pace of the rollout, and NBN Co isn’t going anywhere either. The only source of conjecture is whether Quigley will still be in charge of the government entity.

Opposition communications minister Malcolm Turnbull may not be on Mike Quigley’s Christmas card list but the presumed personal friction between the two should not be a key factor in whether Quigley stays or goes. A more pertinent reason would be if the Coalition burdens him with a revised policy that proves to be untenable. There are also indications that NBN Co is certainly preparing for a life after Labor in Canberra; for one thing Quigley has confirmed that NBN Co will not be signing contracts willy-nilly to make life harder for the Coalition. Quigley has told the AFR that NBN Co would not sign contracts with construction companies and suppliers beyond what was "commercially sensible.”

Tower knockbacks

One final note on the rollout: NBN CO has felt the sting of rejection when it comes to its plans to put up mobile towers in regional areas. The towers are a critical cog in NBN Co’s plans to deliver its fixed-wireless long-term evolution network but have been a source of acrimony between the company and councils. While most have been placated to some measure, the Golden Plains Shire has reportedly become the first council in the Ballarat region of Victoria to reject an NBN telecommunications tower.

According to Fairfax papers, NBN Co was hoping to build a tower at Napoleons, south of Ballarat but the council has knocked back the plan, citing the tower as an "unacceptable visual and amenity impact." Meanwhile, plans for a tower in Yendon have also been sent back to the drawing board, with NBN Co asking Moorabool Shire Council to defer consideration of its amended application for the 40-metre wireless internet tower.

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