The NBN's contractor complications

Rolling out the NBN was always going to be a big ask and the enormity of the construction task is now patently clear with NBN Co unhappy with its contractors. But how does the Coalition fix this problem?

Rolling out the NBN was always going to be a big ask and the enormity of the construction task is now patently clear as the brickbats continue to pour in. The latest attack on NBN Co’s credibility comes courtesy of the Australian Financial Review, which reports that NBN Co is being forced to redo parts of the network and it isn’t entirely pleased with the performance of the contractors so far.

None of this should come as a surprise given how elusive hitting the rollout target has become. The latest revelations are a validation of what has been painfully apparent for some time and it will be interesting to see whether the blame game continues to intensify. NBN Co might be keen to pin the problems to the poor project management skills of its construction partners, however, the construction companies probably have some gripes of their own when it comes to working with NBN Co.

One of the points raised by the AFR is that despite NBN Co’s reservations the same contracted firms have continued to secure big money deals in recent weeks. However, the reality is that the construction partners where always going to be involved in rolling out the fibre, so the issue to ponder is at what level do these subcontractors get involved? Do the latest revelations provide further proof that NBN Co needs to take a far more hands-on approach with the rollout?

Relieving Syntheo of its task in Northern Territory and sending in teams to assist with the fibre splicing could just be the beginning and a handy pilot program which could provide the template to be replicated across all states and territories. Of course the top brass and NBN Co is probably going to look a lot different post-election and the Coalition could potentially install an executive to the board who has the requisite skills in the sector to manage the process. NBN Co board has had its fair share of bankers so perhaps it’s time an executive with construction experience. What if a heavyweight like former Leighton supremo Wal King was given a chance? 

The construction woes have proven to be a critical fault line for Labor’s NBN and it’s going to play a major role in how the Coalition’s NBN ambitions pan out. The next communications minister – Malcolm Turnbull or Paul Fletcher - will have a raft of issues to wade through and the legacy of the contracts signed with the construction companies will provide plenty of headaches.

Can the Coalition get a handle on the construction when it comes to its fibre to the node network? Potentially, but it will have to ensure that NBN Co assumes a far greater role in ensuring that the fibre gets to the cabinets on time.