news The chief executive of the National Broadband Network Company this afternoon strongly criticised the Australian Financial Review newspaper for what he said was a “disappointing”, “incorrect and misleading” report that had “wrongly” claimed NBN Co would not recover its costs by its projected date.
The story, published on the AFR’s website last night, was entitled “NBN Co won’t recover costs by 2040, defends pricing”. The article was based on a letter sent by the government broadband company to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission this week (PDF), in response to the regulator’s request for greater transparency with respect to NBN Co’s price controls and planned revenues.
However, although NBN Co’s letter contained four scenarios under which NBN Co would variously recoup or fail to recoup the cost of its network construction and operation by 2040, the AFR’s report mentioned only one scenario. Under two of the scenarios not mentioned, NBN Co would recoup its costs by 2040, or even earlier. NBN Co is currently projecting that it will require about $30 billion worth of government investment over its life, with another $14 billion to be funded through debt arrangements.
In a statement issued this afternoon, NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley said that the AFR, Australia’s national daily business newspaper, had “misconstrued the National Broadband Network’s financial forecasts and wrongly reported that NBN Co would not recover its costs by 2040”.
“NBN Co continues to expect that it will pay back to Government the amount spent on the network within the timeframe laid down in the updated Corporate Plan issued in 2012. To suggest otherwise is incorrect and misleading,” said Quigley. “In the Corporate Plan, NBN Co forecast that it would pay back by FY2033 the cash paid out and this forecast has not changed.”
“The Australian Financial Review, in quoting from a letter sent to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission by NBN Co, had instead referred to the Initial Cost Recovery Account or ICRA, which takes the amount spent by NBN Co and capitalises that amount at a regulated rate agreed with the ACCC. Under this calculation, revenue received by NBN Co is counted against the ICRA until it is extinguished. However, this does not affect the revenue assumptions that have been made by NBN Co, nor the returns forecast in the Corporate Plan.”
In its letter to the ACCC, NBN Co’s statement pointed out, it had noted a number of scenarios in which the ICRA would be extinguished before FY2039-40. Other scenarios point out earlier timelines to repay ICRA over the long-term timeframe. “The Australian Financial Review however appears to have resorted to an oversimplification by focusing on one scenario only,” NBN Co’s statement said.
“NBN Co appreciates that the regulatory concepts used in its negotiation with the ACCC are complex but it is disappointing that Australia’s daily business newspaper has misrepresented the project’s underlying financial position,” Quigley said. “The project’s financial underpinnings remain robust. NBN Co is on track to deliver a financial return to the Government over the life of the project while providing all Australians access to high-speed broadband services.”
Delimiter has invited the AFR to respond to the issue and will publish any response the AFR issues to Delimiter as a right of reply. So far, the newspaper has not issued a statement about the issue and has not issued a correction to its story.
History of inaccuracy
The news comes as Communications Minister Stephen Conroy — the minister responsible for the NBN project — has repeatedly criticised the AFR over the past year for what he has claimed to be inaccuracies in the newspaper’s reporting of the project. And in a doorstop press conference last week, the Senator continued his attack on the AFR, referring to an article the newspaper had written regarding delays in NBN Co’s fibre rollout caused by contractor Syntheo. “We are on track to meet the corporate plan, no matter how much heavy breathing you or the Financial Review wants to do,” Conroy told an AFR reporter at the event.
In late June last year, in another example, the newspaper published an article stating that there was “a real risk” that the NBN’s fibre infrastructure might be overtaken by technical breakthroughs in areas such as “wireless technology”. “One such breakthrough on the technological horizon is Data In Data Out wireless technology, which promises wireless speeds up to 1000 times faster than those offered today,” the newspaper claimed. However, the notion that wireless could serve as a replacement for fibre or other fixed network technologies is heavily disputed by the global technology community and is a view outside current mainstream thinking on the issue.
The AFR also reported that take-up of the NBN in the areas where it is available so far has been “minuscule”. Unfortunately, this claim is also heavily disputed. In general, Australia-wide, NBN take-up rates have been strong. In fact, in communities such as Willunga in South Australia and Kiama in New South Wales, the take-up rate in the short time the NBN has been active in those areas has been north of 30 percent. This rate is expected to accelerate as Telstra’s competing copper cable is shut down in areas where the NBN has been rolled out, forcing Australians to migrate onto the NBN fibre.
The publication of that article came a day after the AFR published another article on the NBN stating that two key NBN contractors weren’t bidding for the next round of NBN construction deals due to rollout delays in the network. However, after the publication of the article, NBN Co and the contractors publicly denied the AFR’s allegations as “patently untrue”.
Over the past several years, there have been a number of misleading articles published by various other local newspapers about the NBN. In December 2011, the Australian Press Council expressed concern about the Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the Federal Government’s National Broadband Network project, backing a local critic’s complaint that three articles in a short period of time had contained “inaccurate or misleading assertions” about the NBN. Similarly, in March last year, another News Ltd publication, The Australian, published a correction to a story after it inaccurately alleged that a school in South Australia would have to pay $200,000 to connect to the NBN; in fact, the school will receive NBN access as part of the normal rollout.
The National Press Council — which AFR publisher Fairfax is a core member of — includes the following on its list of ‘core principles’ to be followed by journalists working for its members:
“General Principle 1: Accurate, fair and balanced reporting: Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced. They should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by omission or commission.
General Principle 2: Correction of inaccuracy: Where it is established that a serious inaccuracy has been published, a publication should promptly correct the error, giving the correction due prominence.”
It is clear at this point that the AFR has breached both of these general principles with this article, and must publish a correction to its article. It has made a serious allegation — that one of Australia’s largest infrastructure projects will not recoup its costs in the time frame which it has pledged to — and it has done so without sufficient supporting evidence. That seems to me to be the very definition of an occasion on which a correction is required. At the very least, the AFR should print Quigley’s statement this afternoon and give it a degree of prominence.
I don’t have a grudge against the AFR — it’s still the only Australian newspaper which I currently respect, and after all I used to work there as a technology reporter. I retain a great fondness for the masthead and still closely follow some of the journalists there — such as investigative reporter Neil Chenoweth. But in this case it needs to do the right thing. And I would advise it to pull up its socks when it comes to its NBN reporting in general.