news NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley has laughed off criticism of the speed of the rollout of the National Broadband Network’s fibre deployment, confirming it is on track for its December target of 758,000 premises being constructed, and pointing out similar criticism levelled at the deployment of Australia’s first telephone networks in 1909.
Senior figures in the Coalition, as well as conservative media commentators have consistently criticised the NBN rollout over the past several years for the speed of its rollout. In one notable comment, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in April this year that the rollout was happening “with the determination and velocity of an arthritic snail”. In August, when the Government released NBN Co’s new corporate plan, the company acknowledged it was six months behind schedule, due to factors such as the lengthy negotiation process involved in NBN Co’s multi-billion dollar deal with Telstra.
However, speaking at a lunch held by the Sydney Business Chamber last week, the man in charge of that rollout, Quigley, revealed NBN Co was on track to meet its target of 758,000 premises where construction of the company’s fibre network has commenced or been completed by the end of December. In the current six month period, the company has nearly doubled the number of premises where construction has commenced or been completed (from about 318,000 to just short of 600,000 at the end of October). Delimiter did not attend the lunch, but we have received notes on Quigley’s speech from NBN Co.
Separately, Quigley told the ABC in an interview on the sidelines of the lunch that although the project had taken some time to get off the ground, it was now starting to “hit its straps” in terms of rollout speed. “We’re feeling reasonably happy with the progress we’re making,” he said. “We’re aiming to finish the build of this network by mid-2021. That looks eminently doable and we’re quite happy with the way we’re progressing on costs. These kind of exaggerated claims you hear about huge delays and overruns really are not accurate.”
The Coalition does not view NBN Co’s measurement of premises where construction has completed or commenced as the correct measurement for the deployment of the NBN, preferring instead to focus on the actual number of concrete premises where construction has finished, or the number of active connections where Australians have actually taken up the NBN infrastructure. NBN Co itself sees the premises constructed or commenced figure as being more representative of total construction activity across its network.
However, Quigley also made the point in the lunch last week that those concrete numbers – activations and premises passed – would start to look very large in the June quarter of 2013, due to the fact that by that stage hundreds of thousands of premises would have been fully constructed – meaning that hundreds of thousands of Australians will have the chance to connect to the NBN with an active service. NBN Co’s corporate plan (PDF) forecasts that in mid-2013, it will have some 44,000 customers on new NBN fibre infrastructure, for instance – and a further 38,000 on wireless and satellite networks, plus 10,000 or so on fibre greenfields infrastructure.
In addition, Quigley told the audience at the lunch, it was important to note that uptake of the NBN would start to skyrocket shortly due to the fact that it would start decommissioning Telstra’s copper network in most of the NBN’s early stage rollout zones from later this week – with some 25,000 premises to be disconnected in sites across Australia. This move is expected to force residents and businesses onto the superior NBN infrastructure, as public information campaigns are kicked off in the affected areas.
Lastly, Quigley also told the audience that complaints and controversy – which have dogged the NBN project from the start – were nothing new when it came to these kinds of projects. The NBN chief quoted a letter published in the Brisbane Courier newspaper in April 1909, which referred to the deployment of telephone infrastructure by the government at that stage. By a concerned citizen who labelled themselves ‘“Engaged Pro Bono Publico’, it stated:
“Sir, in my opinion there is only one way to rule out the question of excessive and prohibitive increases to the cost of the telephone, and that is to convene a public meeting to arrange to employ messengers instead of telephones. Enormous amounts of money have been foolishly spent by the department, and naturally, they want us to foot the bill.”
Most who follow the NBN debate know that the project is currently engaged in a race against time. If it can deploy substantial sections of its infrastructure by the time the next Federal Election comes around, it seems likely that a Coalition Government would need to proceed with the project as a whole, or at least maintain much of its premise and goals intact. However, if NBN Co is too slow and its rollout only hits a small fragment of the population, a Coalition Government would have plenty of evidence to claim that the project had not delivered and should be canned or heavily modified.
Right now, evidence is growing that the project is delivering. NBN Co’s contractors certainly seem pretty confident that the construction goals for the initiative are not overly ambitious, and now we have new evidence from Quigley himself that the project is on track to meet the revised targets it set earlier this year. To many, perhaps most in Australia’s telecommunications industry, this will be welcome news, showing that this is a viable initiative by the Federal Government and that all the planning and debate which has been carried out on the NBN so far will not go to waste.
However, personally I still believe Malcolm Turnbull is correct and that the only figures which really matter for the NBN are the ones referring to premises completed and active services. Those are the real benchmarks for how we measure the NBN; and I won’t feel completely comfortable about the project’s long-term future until both number more than half a million (to pick a big number out of a hat).
Image credit: NBN Co