Turnbull's NBN audit must rise above politics

Beyond yet more Labor muck-racking, the latest NBN inquiry must investigate why successive governments have left our telecom sector in such a mess.

The Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced an independent audit of the national broadband network that will focus on the public policy process that led to the National Broadband Network (NBN). But do we really need another audit designed to simply dish the dirt on the previous Labor government?

To find out what actually happened in the lead up to the decision to build a wholesale fibre to the premises (FTTP) NBN Turnbull could read the 2009 presentation made by Professor Reg Coutts or alternatively Turnbull could read the article written by Professor Rod Tucker “The Rise and Fall of Australia’s $44 Billion Broadband Project”.

Both Coutts and Tucker were members of the 2008 expert panel that reviewed the fibre to the node (FTTN) NBN proposals and ultimately recommended FTTP utilising a single wholesale provider.

Possibly Turnbull could phone Tony Shaw, a member of the 2008 expert panel, who he recently appointed to the independent NBN cost-benefit analysis and regulatory inquiry and ask for a brief of what transpired at the expert panel in 2008?

Before we look at Turnbull’s independent public policy process audit we should turn our attention to what is happening in the rest of the world because Australia’s decision to go with a FTTP NBN appears to be catching on like the flu that recently swept across Australia.

The world in transition

In New Zealand a request by Vodafone New Zealand for the Vodafone HFC network to be used rather than rolling out FTTP in Wellington and Christchurch has been rejected by the New Zealand government.

The CEO of Internet NZ, a non-profit internet lobby group, said "This suggestion by Vodafone begs the question, why would Kiwis choose to make use of a second-class network when we are already on our way to having a first-class network?"

In Indonesia it was announced that Alcatel-Lucent, contracted to supply GPON FTTP equipment worth $1.5 billion to NBN Co, would provide GPON FTTP equipment to Telkom Akses which is the Telkom Indonesia subsidiary responsible for building a national broadband infrastructure to provide “ultra-broadband” access for millions of subscribers in Indonesia with the goal of providing connections to “15 million subscribers by 2015 as part of the TITO (Trade in Trade off) Access Modernization Project which is replacing legacy copper cabling with optical fibre".

Google Fiber is expanding to 34 new cities in the US and AT&T is racing to compete. The US gigabit fibre race has well and truly begun.

Japan, Korea, Europe, and even the Telstra like BT in the UK have announced, commenced or completed FTTP networks.

The rate at which Australia’s neighbours and global economic competitors are moving to FTTP has increased in the last year, just at the time when Turnbull has announced Australia will shy away from such an endeavour.

Public policy process audit

With so much information already in the public domain why is there a need to dredge over what is already well known?

And what of the government’s meddling in the decision making process? There are times when politicians can’t help themselves and start to make decisions that are best left to others.

Former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy was embarrassed recently by a series of leaks about how he interfered with decisions that should have been left to experts at NBN Co. Not surprisingly we should expect to see many more political interference leaks while the NBN public policy process audit is being carried out.

While the audit covers “the period from April 2008 (when the Australian Government issued a request for proposals for a national broadband network) to May 2010 (when the implementation study for the NBN was released)” there is no specific requirement in the terms of reference for the audit to report on the woeful state of the Australian telecommunications industry in 2007-8 and the impediments at that time preventing the formation of a competitive telecommunications industry that would meet the Australian consumer’s expectations that fixed telecommunications infrastructure was continually improved and eventually overbuilt with FTTP.

As with any nation building project there is often a “light bulb” moment when the government of the day will look at the options and decide to take the forward looking approach, even if there are costs along the way. Is this what happened with the NBN or was it simply a case where the 2008 expert panel decided that there needed to be a NBN that was not dominated by Telstra, the only way to achieve this was to roll out a new network and if a new network was to be installed then it had to be FTTP to be cost effective in the long term?

Will key decision makers participate?

Hopefully the NBN public policy process audit will get to the bottom of what actually occurred during the two year period but this will not occur if the audit does not speak with all of the key participants in the FTTP NBN decision.

For some of the key decision makers involved in the NBN’s formative years there will be little to be gained by speaking with the audit team, though some might participate if the discussions are made public but this is not likely to occur is it?

Will the original NBN proposals be made public? Will Telstra CEO David Thodey agree to make the full Telstra FTTN NBN proposal public? No. If we can’t see the original proposals how can Australians get a truthful account of what the 2008 expert panel saw and did not like?

Not surprisingly the NBN public policy process audit terms of reference include a review of “the approach taken in regard to obtaining cost benefit or independent reviews of the project”.

The Coalition government is undoubtedly looking for a damning assessment by the NBN public policy process audit team of the apparent lack of a NBN cost benefit analysis and failure to conduct regular independent reviews.

But Australians expect governments to load review and audit teams with people sympathetic to the government’s views and if they unexpectedly turn up something the government does not like then the government will bury the information deep in the review or audit report.

What about the most unfortunate finding of Turnbull’s NBN strategic review that by 2027 or thereabouts the cost difference between a FTTP NBN and a FTTN NBN could be as little as one billion dollars?

That titbit of unwanted information was buried very deeply within the NBN strategic review report.

Nation building projects

The NBN public policy process audit is to report on “what future actions should be taken by the Australian Government when considering major projects / reforms such as the NBN".

Governments struggle with nation building projects because there is a failure to look beyond the next election and politicians adopt naivety and ideological decision making in the face of logic and overwhelming facts.

The NBN public policy process audit must look at the root cause behind the decision to build the NBN and comment on successive governments’ failure to split Telstra into two companies.

It's only by gaining some understanding of the Australian government’s failure to address well known issues affecting the performance of an industry sector that we will gain an insight into the true origin of the NBN.

Failure to do so will demonstrate the NBN public policy process audit is nothing but a political exercise and this would be the worst possible outcome of what could be a wealth of positive information.

Mark Gregory is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University

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