opinion By continually declining to release hard statistics about how the rollout and uptake of its network are proceeding, the National Broadband Network Company risks portraying itself as exactly the kind of negligent and overly bureaucratic monopoly which the Federal Opposition has long accused it of being.
On quite a few occasions over the past several months, I’ve given the good spokespeople at NBN Co a quick call. After the usual pleasantries between professional colleagues have been exchanged – Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, how are the children, you know the kind of thing – I have raised the same topic with them. Given that NBN Co has not released any hard data about how the rollout and uptake of its network are progressing since the end of September, I have asked, when is NBN Co planning to update Australia on how the network build and uptake are progressing?
The reason I have repeated this question so often is simple. The fate of much of the whole NBN rollout, especially when it comes the fibre network which will make up the bulk of its network infrastructure, hangs in the balance right now. With Opposition Leader Tony Abbott having repeatedly threatened over the past several years to wind the project back, and many other senior Coalition figures also having expressed substantial doubts over that time regarding its usefulness, it remains likely at this point that if the Coalition takes power in the upcoming Federal Election this year, the NBN as a whole will be substantially modified or cancelled wholesale, especially if it has not rolled out its network very widely.
Those in favour of the NBN project – which at this point, is most Australians – can take some glimmer of hope for its future from the on-again, off-again enthusiasm which Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has had for the deployment of fast broadband solutions in Australia. But it is still a fact that even if Turnbull does agree with the aims of the NBN initiative as a whole, he disapproves in practice with much of the plan for achieving those aims. And there is no certainty that Turnbull would actually hold the post of Communications Minister in an Abbott administration – or if the rest of a future Abbott cabinet would support him to maintain the superstructure of NBN Co as an organization and the bones of the project as it stands.
Then, too, despite the self-congratulatory media releases issued wholesale by NBN Co (PDF) and the Government earlier this month regarding the claim that the project achieved its aim of commencing or completing construction of its fibre network to some 758,000 premises by the end of 2012, there is still very little hard, public evidence that the rollout of the NBN is proceeding as planned.
NBN Co itself admits the 758,000 figure is calculated based on how many contract instructions – mere paperwork – have been issued to NBN Co’s contractors, not when construction is actually measured to have begun in streets and under them, in ducts underground. It should be self-evident that paperwork does not a network make.
NBN Co’s last set of hard stats – released in early October, covering the quarter before that period – show that the network rollout is making very slow progress. Since NBN Co was formed in mid-2009, the company at the end of September had deployed fibre to just 52,000 premises, and signed up just 6,358 premises for actual active services from that total. And the rollout, at that stage, was still proceeding very slowly on a quarter by quarter basis. In the three months to the end of September last year, NBN Co completed construction to just 13,000 additional premises (bringing the total to 52,000) and signed up just 3,500 new customers for active services.
Things are going a little better when it comes to the satellite and wireless portions of NBN Co’s network, with some 17,000 total customers having signed up for NBN services in that period. However, here the public has no idea how many customers have signed up for each different service (satellite or wireless), as NBN Co refuses to break out totals for each, despite the fact that the pair represent completely different technologies and deployment styles. Satellite and wireless are not comparable services and should not be lumped in together.
Now, in the grand scheme of things, as I have previously written, such statistics mean less than nothing. The NBN is a decade-long project, and uptake statistics in its first year are, frankly, not that important when you consider that the vast majority of Australians will be forced to take up the NBN eventually in any case, as the NBN will functionally replace the copper and HFC networks operated by Telstra and Optus. Eventually, almost every Australian will adopt the NBN – it’s just a matter of time.
But in the context of the upcoming Federal Election, which will decide the future of the project, and in the context of trying to devise what kind of company NBN Co is becoming, hard rollout statistics matter a great deal right now.
The question Australian voters are faced with right now is whether or not NBN Co is delivering on its aims. Did the company, as it claims, ramp up its rollout speed dramatically in the fourth quarter of 2012, so that it now has construction activity taking place at a rapid clip in locations right around Australia? Is NBN Co staunchly on its way to meeting its target (PDF of the company’s corporate plan here) of having completed construction to some 286,000 fibre premises around Australia by the end of June? Is the company currently signing up new customers at a rapid pace, in line with its plans to have some 44,000 customers signed up by that same date?
Personally, I believe that NBN Co is making the progress it’s supposed to be towards those aims. Almost every executive or lower level worker I have met from NBN Co – and I’ve met a lot over the past several years – has been a highly ethical, hard-working, highly professional individual, and normally quite underpaid for the work they’re doing.
But right now, NBN Co is constantly stonewalling all attempts by outsiders to get more information on how its rollout is going.
When I requested updated rollout statistics on the company’s network in early December, I was told the company only releases that information quarterly, and that I would have to wait until it was ready to give the information out. When I filed a Freedom of Information request for that same information, I was told I would have to wait until 11 February 2013 – two months after I made my initial Freedom of Information request.
When I requested updated rollout statistics in the first week of January, as per NBN Co’s quarterly reporting schedule, I was told I would have to wait for that information.
When I requested updated rollout statistics in the second week of January, as NBN Co claimed victory on its self-defined “premises commenced or completed construction” measure, I was told that I would have to wait for that information.
When I requested updated rollout statistics today, in the fourth week of January, again I was told that I would have to wait for that information.
My question to NBN Co is: How long is the Australian public going to have to wait to find out how fast the company is actually rolling out its network? Will I be forced to file another Freedom of Information request to find out how far NBN Co progressed on its network rollout over the three months to the end of 2012? Will I then have to wait another two months for that information to be tabulated and supplied to me? Will we only find out what NBN Co did in the last quarter of 2012, at the beginning of April? Will journalists have to start playing this FoI game with NBN Co continually over the next year, just to find out how its network rollout is going?
If you believe NBN Co, the company is currently attempting to tabulate and confirm rollout stats for the last quarter of 2012, in an effort to ensure they are accurate. If you believe NBN Co, that information will shortly be released for public consumption and debate.
However, it beggars belief that NBN Co would need to take more than three weeks to tabulate that information, following the conclusion of the final quarter of 2012. I have no doubt that NBN Co’s IT systems are more than capable of providing an up to the minute figure at any time for how many users are actively connected to its network. Any modern telecommunications company should be able to provide that information after a simple database query of its customer records. If NBN Co can’t do that, then its IT managers are, frankly, incompetent.
It beggars belief that NBN Co is not able to coordinate its contractors and staff well enough to be able to consolidate information from across the nation as to how many premises it had completed construction to by any given period. I am sure that NBN Co’s contractors are issuing the company with weekly updates on their construction efforts, if not daily. Any modern construction effort should hold that information as a matter of course. I am 100 percent sure that NBN Co’s top management, including chief executive Mike Quigley, receives almost daily updates from across the company on the construction of its network. This is, after all, its only real benchmark. To get that network built. If NBN Co can’t generate this information internally on a week by week basis, then its project managers, are, frankly, incompetent.
You would think a company of almost 1,700 staff should be able to manage to do these things.
I will note again, as I have written previously, that I personally believe that the NBN policy is the best telecommunications policy which Australia has seen at least over the past decade and likely before that. It’s a very good policy which will deliver massively improved service delivery to Australians, stimulate the digital economy (as much as I hate that phrase), deliver long-awaited restructuring of the telecommunications industry and even make a profit for the government.
However, the longer NBN Co declines to act in a transparent way about the construction of that network, the more doubt in the company’s ability to deliver on its promises I have. NBN Co’s recent move to make its head of construction redundant (the second time it has lost a construction chief in several years, as well as a whole bevy of other senior staff) has only added to this doubt. While I approve of the NBN policy, as regular readers will know, Delimiter is an evidence-based site, and before I pronounce judgement on any given issue, I need to examine the evidence to determine what conclusions to draw.
The Australian public is investing tens of billions of dollars in the construction of the NBN. Our taxpayer dollars are going directly towards funding it, and the project represents the future of telecommunications in Australia for the next half-century. NBN Co has no right to withhold information about how its network construction effort is progressing; especially when it has previously stated that it would provide that information on a quarterly basis. Let it do so.
2013 is the pivotal year on which the NBN’s whole future balances. Let’s hope that the next few weeks see the company turn over a new leaf and start to provide more regular updates on its progress in meeting its stated aims. Because I will assure the good folks at NBN Co of one thing. If the company does not open up and start providing that information, I will continue to file Freedom of Information requests with NBN Co until the public’s right to know is met. The secretive Federal Attorney-General’s Department has some experience in dealing with pesky journalists seeking to dig up basic information which the public has a right to know. I suggest NBN Co consult with AGD and other government departments to get a feel for just how persistent the media can be.