The NBN wrecking crew

The audacity of the NBN project always made it a hard endeavour but the current mess is a sad indictment of our political process.

As we wait to be told by the Communication Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s hand-picked team that the National Broadband Network (NBN) has been an unmitigated disaster it’s perhaps an appropriate time to look at apportioning some of the blame for the mess that Turnbull will undoubtedly find.

The NBN is a nation building project that will have a significant ongoing effect on Australian society at every level, including education, health, government services, business, and entertainment.

Sounds great on paper, but the story so far has been dispiriting to say the least. So, who’s responsible for the current mess?

Was it the panel of experts, put together in 2008, to consider the tender responses for a new national telecommunications network that would support broadband services?

The panel had the temerity to advise the then Labor government that a Fibre to the Node (FTTN) network based on VDSL / copper should have been done 15 years earlier, none of the tender respondents would be able to achieve funding so soon after the GFC and the world would be soon moving to Fibre to the Premises (FTTP). What cheek!

Surely the panel’s advice that FTTN did not provide adequate connection speeds, quality and traffic class management and was not upgradeable to FTTP, which would be needed by 2020 to provide gigabit connection speeds and traffic class management, was wrong and it should shoulder the majority of the blame for leading Labor down the garden path.

Then again, maybe the lion’s share of the blame should reside with NBN Co’s senior management team that arguably setup and ran the greatest white elephant in Australian history, failed to understand the complexity of the task at every level and took every opportunity to utilise the wrong approach or technology?

While we are looking for a scapegoat, former NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley should surely be put in the stocks? What better place for him to spend his second retirement?

Quigley may have had good intentions at heart but mistakes were made under his watch. There was a failure to capture the public’s imagination, using construction companies rather than building an internal construction department, failure to get local communities to assist with the premises installation, failure to prevent the burgeoning of service class 0 and so on.

But it would be wrong to remember Quigley, NBN Co’s senior management team and the expert panel as the sole architects of the biggest public project failure in Australian history. While each have played a part, the real culprits for the demise of the Australian NBN dream lie elsewhere.

The bronze medal goes to…

Turnbull gets the bronze, though he could be awarded silver or gold at the next medal ceremony because his much anticipated backflip and somersault routine is expected to commence early in the New Year, if not sooner, when the sanitised NBN review hits the streets.

Turnbull’s major failure to date has been his inability to get the Coalition to adopt a FTTP solution with some FTTB for hard to complete MDUs and to adopt a mantra that the Coalition would complete the FTTP NBN faster, better and more efficiently than Labor, simply because the Coalition are better major project managers than Labor could ever aspire to be.

For artistic points that cemented the bronze, it was impossible to go past Turnbull’s remarks that the recently leaked NBN Co report written during the election caretaker period that provided advice to the incoming government was worthless because it was written by an NBN Co board and senior management team selected by Labor.

Turnbull’s flair for the attack appears to have backfired because he has unwittingly diminished the NBN review report which he received last week because it was prepared by an NBN Co board and senior management team selected by the Coalition.

His stubborn refusal to accept the weight of evidence that overwhelmingly justifies FTTP merits rebuke and locking himself and NBN Co into futile targets could further compound his woes.

The silver medal goes to…

The former Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Stephen Conroy is awarded the silver medal for his failure to ensure that the decision to build a FTTP based NBN was irreversible.

Legislation and contracts are weapons often used to prevent key political projects from being reversed if an election loss ensues.

At every election voters are confronted by opposition politicians promising to ditch major projects started by the government. And after every election where a change of government occurs the new government sets about trying to reverse major projects but rarely succeed.

The Australian government is based on two levels of government and while a new government may have control over the House of Representatives it's common for the government to not have control of the Senate.

Well-crafted legislation is vital to prevent major public projects being reversed. If a new government is forced to get Senate approval to stop a project it is likely the government will fail.

The recent Coalition attempt to have the carbon tax repealed is a good example because without an amenable Senate government legislation to reverse previous legislation will not succeed.

So why did Conroy fail to introduce legislation that would effectively prevent Turnbull’s FTTN NBN?

Can the Senate take steps to delay or thwart the Coalitions plans to utilise a UK BT style non-upgradable FTTN roll-out?

Conroy also had the opportunity to ensure that contracts entered into by NBN Co could not be easily reversed but this does not appear to have occurred. Why?

The recent Gonski brouhaha is an example of an incoming federal government unsuccessfully trying to unravel a former government’s keystone project. Live in Victoria? Well you will be very familiar with the Baillieu government’s unsuccessful efforts to ditch Myki and the Wonthaggi desalination plant.

Conroy also missed an opportunity to force people onto the NBN as soon as fibre was laid in their street. Copper should have been cut and pulled up within a week of a street having fibre past premises not 18 months after a complete fibre serving area going live.

Another strategic mistake by Conroy was the failure to roll-out the NBN in the inner suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney first. A high take-up rate in the affluent inner urban areas would have increased the envy factor for people waiting to get the NBN.

Nothing engenders the ire of Australians more than seeing the affluent benefit by government decision making. Conroy could have used this to his advantage but missed the opportunity.

At a recent Telecommunications Association forum Quigley spoke about the higher than expected take-up rate in Canberra and how this should be seen to reflect anticipated take-up rates in other affluent areas.

An anticipated future take-up rate does not compete in the public arena with an opposition spokesman who holds up a chart day after day, month after month showing how the NBN take-up rate is hovering around 10-30 per cent in most areas and the rate of change is glacial.

It was a major strategic mistake on Conroy’s part to not realise at the outset the Coalition would use the NBN take-up rate as the weapon with which to attack the credibility of NBN Co and the government.

And the gold medal goes to…

The two major Australian political parties - The Coalition and The Australian Labor Party - whose petty antagonism essentially scuttled the NBN.

The Australian telecommunications industry and the NBN are perfect examples of how decades of political mismanagement, poor decision making and infighting can lead to an unacceptable outcome that harms the nation.

Australia currently ranks in the mid-40s for national Internet connection speeds as it slides down the list of internet connected countries.

Telstra remains an overly dominant carrier that should have been separated into wholesale and retail organisations decades ago. Because it was not split in two, the telco has expended little energy to improve the fixed access network where competition is greatest and has expanded its mobile network utilising public and private funds thus gaining an unfair advantage over Optus and Vodafone.

The telco is now in an enviable position where it takes a “clip” from every company that utilises any part of the access or backhaul networks. NBN Co, which we were told would solve the Telstra problem, is forced to rent space in Telstra exchanges and to lease access to pits, ducts and traps.

Notwithstanding the separation paradox and the NBN malaise, the countless examples over past decades of government mismanagement of the telecommunications industry are the reason why politicians stand atop the medal podium.

It's time for politicians to stop blaming everyone else for the mess and to start working together in the national interest.

Mark Gregory is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University. You can follow @_markagregory on Twitter or read his blog here.

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