news The National Broadband Network Company is reportedly being forced to re-do portions of its fibre rollout in some areas because of the incompetence of its contractors, according to leaked documents the Financial Review newspaper published from within the company this morning.
Up until late March this year, NBN Co was publicly insisting that it was broadly on track to reach its mid-2013 target of some 341,000 total premises being covered by its fibre to the premise rollout, although it had admitted that its contractor Syntheo had been suffering delays in its portion of the deployment. However, on March 21 — as the nation’s attention was drawn to the Federal Labor leadership struggle between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her predecessor Kevin Rudd — NBN Co announced that it was three months behind on its rollout progress.
This morning the Financial Review published information from what it said were confidential documents held within NBN Co about its progress. The claims are documented in a number of articles — NBN contractors fail to deliver, NBN at war with contractors, and the newspaper has also published several opinionated articles arguing the NBN was suffering major headaches. One, entitled NBN Co’s competence under question, isn’t paywalled.
Likely the most controversial claim published by the newspaper is the allegation that NBN Co has been forced to go back over portions of its rollout due to the poor quality of work by its contractors. “In one instance, up to 15 per cent of fibre cables in the northern Canberra suburb of Crace have to be redone,” the newspaper reported.
Delimiter has invited NBN Co to comment on or verify the newspaper’s claims that it has had to ‘re-do’ portions of its network rollout, but the company has not yet responded to a request for comment in the area, although the issue has already been taken up by conservative commentators such as radio shockjock Alan Jones, who noted the AFR’s coverage on air this morning as part of 2GB’s ongoing heavy criticism of the NBN project.
NBN Co has responded in general to issues with its rollout, however. In a statement this morning, the company said that for most of 2012, its major construction contractors had assured it that they would meet — or even exceed — their targets.
“At the end of 2012, however, we became concerned about Syntheo’s progress. Their reports simply didn’t measure up to the activity we were seeing on the ground,” the company said. “Syntheo then formally revised down its forecast. That led Mr. Quigley to inform Senate Estimates on 12 February that: “One of our construction partners has significantly reduced its forecast since we presented back in the October timeframe”.”
The company said that it had worked with Syntheo in particular to examine the contractor’s problems and find a way through them. “At the same time we looked into what was happening with our other construction partners,” NBN Co said. “This led us to the reforecasting of the numbers, which were ratified by the Board of NBN Co on 21 March.
“The Corporate Plan target of passing 341,000 premises with fibre is now expected to be achieved in September. Between 190,000 and 220,000 premises are now forecast to be passed by fibre by the end of June. This is a three month delay in a decade-long national infrastructure project.
NBN Co emphasised that the delay in its rollout was due to what it described as “mobilisation”, and emphasised, as its chief executive Mike Quigley did in March, that the rollout delay would be recovered — although at the time, Quigley declined to say when precisely the gap would be made up.
“We stand by the ability of our partners, who are the leaders in the Australian construction industry, to ramp up the rollout and ensure every Australian has access to fast, affordable and reliable broadband by 2021,” said NBN Co this morning.
You have to pity NBN Co at times. Last week it was The Australian newspaper going hard on the telco about one issue. This week it’s the Financial Review. And throughout, no matter what it does, the company is getting damned to hell and back by conservative shockjocks on national radio day, in day out.
Meanwhile, its contractors are failing to make their targets, and apparently leaking like a sieve to those same newspapers. I can’t imagine that it’s NBN Co executives funneling internal documents the AFR’s way, after all — it seems likely that it’s either contractors or executives from retail ISPs leaking in this manner.
So what do I think about NBN Co’s newest set of problems as detailed by the AFR this morning?
Well, as I’ve written previously, I’ve largely lost faith in the governance of the NBN project as a whole at this point, if not its overall model. There just isn’t a lot of evidence at this point that the project is being competently managed; broadly, the NBN is not being rolled out at the moment, and where it is being rolled out, as we’ve learnt this morning, sometimes that rollout is not of sufficient quality to go ahead. When you consider that the Coalition is about to win power in the Federal Government and deliver NBN Co another couple of years of turmoil, there’s not a lot to be positive about.
However, I am always conscious of the fact — as many in the telecommunications industry have pointed out to me privately recently — that these kinds of problems in the rollout were always going to raise their heads. This is a massive project on a scale which is unprecedented in Australia, and what we’re seeing right now is teething problems as NBN Co and its contractors work out how to do this stuff. It’s no wonder that the contractors don’t have a lot of experience with splicing fibre; after all, Australia hasn’t had many fibre rollouts in its short history.
All of this only emphasises the need for NBN Co and its political masters — whatever their persuasion — to push forward with the project. After all, whether the NBN is initially FTTP, FTTN or some mixture in between, the fact remains that these kinds of problems would pop up regardless, and that the copper network would still eventually need to be replaced. Australia has to go through this fraught process at some stage over the next few decades. Let it be now.
I must also say that although I’ve been pretty hard on the Financial Review at times for its poor NBN reporting, this isn’t one of those times. The newspaper has been doing a stellar job in recent weeks reporting on the mis-management of NBN Co’s rollout, and journalists such as David Ramli, James Hutchinson and John McDuling have doing very good, square work. Whether you are pro-NBN or not, it’s still a universal truth that every major government project should have light shone into its darkest corners, and this trio is currently doing the best NBN reporting in Australia. Nice one.