The NBN asbestos meltdown blown out of proportion

The asbestos blame game has diverted attention from the growing realisation that there is a solution to the NBN Co's rollout blues - Telstra. In fact, giving Telstra a bigger piece of the network build work could be the sweetener that helps Turnbull get his hands on the copper.

The rollout of the NBN so far has been an object lesson in how not to run an infrastructure project, big or small. But the histrionics around asbestos and the attempt to somehow level all culpability at the feet of NBN Co beggars belief.

NBN Co may have ticked a lot of wrong boxes but it’s hard to imagine that the asbestos in Telstra’s underground pits would have been treated as an afterthought. 

As NBN Co boss Mike Quigley pointed out in the Senate estimates hearing last night, both Telstra and NBN Co were aware of the risks from the get-go and had procedures in place.

The revelations Visionstream and Service Stream workers were disposing the asbestos in a careless manner have naturally been followed up by rush to assign blame. 'It’s NBN Co’s fault', 'no it’s Telstra’s fault', then again, maybe the contractors should be more vigilant about the disposal of asbestos.

The fascination with asbestos is understandable, given the tragic legacy of the material and the well-documented pursuit of building products maker James Hardie to atone for its sins.

However, the focus on asbestos has effectively managed to drown out most other discussions on the NBN this week.

One such interesting piece of news was The Australian Financial Review’s reveal of Telstra’s dealings with NBN Co to help to accelerate the NBN rollout. According to the report, Telstra approached NBN Co a year or so ago and offered to complete the planning and design phases of the construction process in five sub-regions, known as FSAMs (fibre serving area modules). 

Of course Telstra wasn’t doing this out of the goodness of its heart. A slow rollout ostensibly threatened its NBN windfall.

As it turns out, NBN Co wasn’t too keen on the idea and needed a fair bit of convincing before giving its approval. While some have highlighted this as another sign of an anti-Telstra bias at NBN Co, the real hurdle was simply the price.

Telstra did manage to get the job done in the five FSAMs (minus the installation of the fibre) in four weeks, in what is a formidable display of its construction capabilities.

NBN Co’s grudging and belated acceptance to Telstra’s offer may have hurt its rollout target, but there’s precious little that can be done about that.

However, it does provide a clue to what lies in store if and when the Coalition comes to power.

Telstra has never made a secret of its desire to play a more hands-on role in the rollout of the fibre. The construction revenues garnered would be the icing to the substantial disconnection payments. And there is a good chance that its wish could come true post-election.

While the renegotiations with Telstra seen as a major hurdle to the speedy deployment of the Coalition’s fibre-to-the-node model, the prospect of Telstra getting deeply involved in the NBN build-out process now seems far more certain.

As RMIT’s Mark Gregory has pointed out, if the construction of the network has to be outsourced NBN Co should look to use every resource available – including Telstra.

“It has the most experience at managing rollouts, it has expertise and the manpower, so why not use Telstra?”

Why not indeed, and as far as Malcolm Turnbull is concerned this is exactly the sort of deal making that will persuade Telstra to relinquish its copper as quickly as possible.

There is a good chance that there will be a trade-off where in return for its copper the Coalition will give Telstra a substantial chunk of the network build work.

The desire has always been there within Telstra and Turnbull should be willing to give the telco what it wants. The construction revenue will be a perfect icing on the NBN cake for Telstra but the big question is whether it’s better able to cope with the civil construction issues that have so far plagued NBN Co.

Well, its swift reaction to the asbestos issue gives us some indication of its ability to mobilise quickly when needed. And given Telstra’s long history of dealing with construction companies many would argue that it’s perhaps better equipped to keep them in line than NBN Co.

Any political imperative to prevent Telstra from rolling out the NBN will be removed with a Coalition win in September. As for the price, well, that’s where things will get interesting. 

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