TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: NBN details missing in action

NBN Co's rhetoric at the latest Senate estimates hearing does not match the facts of network's rollout progress. It's time it provided some real details.

NBN Co’s performance at the Senate estimates committee hearing last week had an air of predictability to it and true to form it was the petulant display of the pollies that once again managed to steal the limelight.

However, the unedifying banter of communications minister Stephen Conroy and Liberal senator Bill Heffernan can’t hide the fact that NBN Co’s revelations inspired little confidence in the general public with regards to whether the rollout targets will be met.

Senator Conroy may insist that the fibre rollout remained on track but it’s hard to reconcile this confidence with the fact that NBN Co has lowered the forecast for the number of premises passed in its rollout to June 2013.

According to NBN Co boss Mike Quigley, the problem lies with the contractor responsible for rolling out the fibre in Western Australia, Northern Territory and South Australia, Syntheo.

"We are working closely with Syntheo to try to recover the original forecast," Quigley told the committee, which is all well and good, but is simply pinning the blame on Syntheo good enough?

In fact, some would say that throwing Syntheo under the bus sets a bad precedent. Contractors may be responsible for the rollout but it’s hard to see why they would be willing to be painted the sole villains if targets continue to be missed. A source told Technology Spectator that one of the key reasons for the delays is that the designs from NBN Co are running late. Quigley and Conroy need to prevent the current situation from descending into a contractual firefight and given the paucity of available contractors, any punitive action from NBN Co will ultimately damage the rollout, perhaps past the point of no return.

It’s important to bear in mind that the contractors and NBN Co are dealing with substantial mitigating factors. The poor state of the Telstra pits and the poor mapping data available have been an immense hindrance to the rollout. But does that justify the poor pace of the rollout in greenfields areas?

On top of that the usefulness of the vague and somewhat spurious metric of "premises where construction is commenced or completed” is something that will continue to haunt NBN Co. Of course this isn’t the only pertinent metric when it comes to judging the pace of the rollout but the current state of affairs means that the coalition will continue to hammer NBN Co on it and direct the voting public’s attention to the fact that very few premises actually have the fibre turned on.

It’s easy to paint the questions posed here in political colours but bickering over political bias will not help us deduce why the rollout targets continue to be revised downwards and how long before the public will continue to believe that the news will be much better by the end of the financial year.

What’s remarkable about NBN Co’s performance in Canberra this week is the number of questions on notice that were flicked away by a pro-forma answers. Quigley and Conroy may insist that the rollout is on target and all the requisite detailed information is now available, but their conviction is starting to ring hollow.

The next NBN hearing holds the promise of more detail, in fact, Quigley has told the committee that by the next estimates roll around we will be "drowning in information''. Here’s hoping he can deliver on that promise.

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