TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: NBN Co's hard slog

NBN Co remains confident of hitting its rollout targets despite the challenges. Meanwhile, the ACCC begins its final SAU lap and there's turbulence ahead for Tony Abbott.

Technology Spectator

The NBN debate was mercifully devoid of political histrionics this week with NBN Co taking the opportunity to provide an update on the rollout and more importantly, impress upon the public the enormity of the task at hand. Meanwhile, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has opened consultation on NBN Co’s Special Access Undertaking and Tony Abbott’s kiss of death for Malcolm Turnbull.

Matching rollout data

Given the plethora of "difficult” issues the NBN Co is tackling at the moment – inaccurate address data, the lack of completed premises in greenfields – the confidence on display by NBN Co chief technology officer Gary McLaren at the NBN Realised Forum this week is admirable.

According to McLaren, the rollout is set to hit a peak of 6,000 connections per day by late 2013, although the political machinations in Canberra have some bearing on this figure.

However, there is an unmistakable defensive twang to the tune NBN Co is humming, which isn’t entirely surprising and at least hints at a realisation that the dynamic nature of the rollout has thrown more than one spanner in the works for NBN Co.

One issue that has proven to be a steady source of headaches has been harmonising the multiple databases that hold crucial address data. This data is coming from Telstra’s copper-network ductwork maps, local councils, utilities and PSMA's G-NAF (Geocoded National Address File) database. Reconciling the information from multiple sources was never going to be easy and NBN Co’s admission of 61 per cent data alignment across the multiple databases is actually better than some expected.

According to NBN Co, of the addresses stored in three separate databases, only 61 per cent of them were in the same place. Meanwhile, 17 per cent were the same in two of the three databases and 22 per cent of the properties don’t match at all. These figures reflect the reality of working with physical infrastructure and the jump from blueprint to actuality is seldom accurate.

In an environment where the public is still reportedly in the dark about the NBN it’s important to acknowledge the work put in by NBN Co so far and the complexity of their task. The interesting thing now will be to see at what point the entire process will be stabilised. According to NBN Co that point will be achieved around late 2013, let’s hope they can stick to that target.

ACCC opens SAU channels

The ACCC has opened consultation on what should be the final Special Access Undertaking lodged by NBN Co. This long and winding road to finding the right framework to govern pricing and access has so far seen the telcos squeeze NBN Co for all its worth.

The ACCC wants to make sure that the agreement gives it enough oversight as the final arbitrator to any dispute and on that issue the telcos and the regulator see eye to eye.

ACCC boss Rod Sims has highlighted some of the other complex issues of detail and drafting that need to be assessed and debated before the SAU gets the final tick. These include NBN Co's commitment to provide retailers with so-called 'reference products', that offer a service of comparable quality and price to existing broadband offerings, NBN Co's commitments around the development of new products and that service levels are appropriately defined .

As far as NBN Co is concerned, it has compliant from the start, especially through its pledge to freeze the wholesale price of its key consumer and business products for five years, and to peg any future price rises to below the rate of inflation. And there is plenty of confidence among NBN Co ranks that this SAU proposal will tick all the right boxes. Having said that don’t expect the telcos to make things easy.

Abbott’s kiss of death?

Coalition leader Tony Abbott may be lagging behind his shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull on the popularity stakes but then again this has been a common theme throughout his tenure as the leader of the Opposition.

Turnbull has always been seen as a more palatable face of the Liberal party by those in the middle and it is worthwhile to note how many involved in the NBN debate still cling to the idea that the Federal Member for Wentworth will pursue a more enlightened NBN policy if he was successful in wresting leadership away from Abbott.  

That’s easier said than done but then again a consistent downward slide in Abbott’s popularity in the lead up to the election could spark a knee-jerk reaction from a jittery coalition. You never know in politics, but for the time being this is nothing more than fanciful, perhaps hopeful, conjecture.

What seems more likely is that Turnbull’s tenure as the shadow communications minister may not last. When quizzed about Turnbull’s continued popularity in the polls Tony Abbott attributed it to the stellar job Turnbull is doing in his portfolio.

"I think Malcolm is doing a really good job as the shadow minister for communications," Abbott said

"The fact that more and more people are realising the national broadband network is the wrong way to go about giving Australians faster and more affordable broadband is in large measure testimony to his effectiveness in prosecuting that case."

That may be the case but could this praise be also the kiss of death? Faced with the prospect of dipping popularity and the NBN becoming an election issue, could Abbott replace Turnbull with someone like Paul Fetcher, ostensibly under the guise of someone who has more hands on experience with regards to telco infrastructure and fibre rollout? It’s a possibility, albeit a slim one, and after all is fair in love, war and politics.