news NBN Co has removed network planning responsibilities from Peter Ferris, the highly experienced and respected network engineer who was responsible for the design of the company’s previous Fibre to the Premises network, allocating the role to an executive who is qualified for the role but has not directly worked in the telecommunications sector since 2007.
Ferris, whose formal title is executive general manager of planning and design at NBN Co, was one of the company’s early employees, joining it in October 2009 six months after it was established by NBN Co founding chief executive Mike Quigley. He has previously held a large number of technical engineering roles focused around Australian telecommunications networks (see his LinkedIn profile here).
For example, immediately before joining NBN Co Ferris was general manager of network technologies at 3 Mobile, which merged with Vodafone that year to form Vodafone Hutchison Australia. Prior to that, for over four years he held the position of general manager, technology and planning at Optus. He has held other senior engineering roles at Optus since 1993. Prior to that point he worked as a manager at Telstra, with his tenure at the company dating back to January 1972.
Ferris is widely regarded as being one of the key figures behind the design of the Fibre to the Premises network which NBN Co was established under the Rudd Labor administration to build. It is believed that much of the design of the network is based directly on principles laid down by Ferris, and that the executive was involved in all aspects of the network planning process.
Although Quigley was the primary public face of NBN Co during Labor’s time administering the company, Ferris also appeared in public on occasion to give details about the project. In August 2011, for example, the engineer gave a highly regarded speech to engineers at Macquarie University that attempted to “myth-bust” some of the popular misconceptions surrounding the project. The video of Ferris’s presentation is available online.
The speech became popular viewing material in Australia’s technology sector partially because it directly rebuffed some of the statements being made by the Opposition and other NBN critics, going into areas such as the claim that the investment in the NBN would be better spent on other areas, future bandwidth demands, wireless bandwidth versus fibre bandwidth, the idea that the Coalition’s preferred Fibre to the Node rollout style will be adequate for future needs, and the lifespan of fibre infrastructure. Ferris’s speech was often based on technical evidence accumulated during the executive’s long career.
NBN Co’s construction model — which involves the extensive use of third-party construction firms — has been acknowledged by both sides of politics to have largely failed. However, very little criticism has been levelled at the network rollout model architected by Ferris, with most technical commentators believing it to be a strong model for a FTTP rollout.
However, it now appears that the executive’s responsibilities have been taken away from him as part of a restructure of NBN Co conducted by the company’s Coalition-appointed chief executive Bill Morrow, who took up his post this month. That restructure will also see NBN Co head of corporate and commercial Kevin Brown, chief financial officer Robin Payne and chief technology officer Gary McLaren (pictured in order above) leave NBN Co. All three have similarly regarded as competent leaders at NBN Co.
In a statement this month, a NBN Co spokesperson said Ferris “remains a highly respected employee of NBN Co”.
“He is currently providing input to the organisational review within the Chief Operating Officer’s area,” they added. NBN Co chief operating officer Greg Adcock was appointed to his role in November 2013, after leading Telstra’s relationship with NBN Co. He replaced respected chief operating officer Ralph Steffens. NBN Co’s CTO office (formerly led by McLaren) has been subsumed into Adcock’s division.
Adcock has been reported to have had a prior connection with Turnbull before the Federal Election. In mid-June, the Financial Review reported that Adcock was being considered for a senior executive position at NBN Co by Turnbull.
Regarding Ferris, NBN Co added: “His former responsibilities have been subsumed across a number of areas, but principally into a new role, EGM Design Authority & Deployment Standards, reporting to the COO. Grant Bowden has been confirmed in this position today. Mr Bowden has widespread experience in planning and strategy for large scale network infrastructure developments.”
Ferris’s replacement, Grant Bowden, bills himself on his LinkedIn profile as “A highly experienced senior executive (CTO) with a proven track record in strategy, planning and implementation of large scale business and technology infrastructure.”
He further adds that he has experience with complex and large scale infrastructure planning and execution; broad executive management disciplines – strategy, planning, operational management, human resources management, financial management and marketing; organisational design and management, including strong team and people leadership; and organisational change planning, execution and management.
However, Bowden does not appear to have worked directly in Australia’s telecommunications sector with wide-scale network rollouts for some time.
His most recent role was as a consultant to Australian property and infrastructure group Lend Lease. It is not clear whether Bowden has been involved in the group’s construction engagements with NBN Co. Period to that role, which started in February 2013, Bowden had worked as a senior executive with Commonwealth Bank since June 2007, focusing on IT infrastructure.
Part of that role was spearheading the bank’s network telecommunications infrastructure. However, banks such as CBA do not typically deploy their own network infrastructure as telcos do, but rely on telco infrastructure.
Bowden’s most recent role directly in the telecommunications sector was a position at Optus from May 206 to May 2007, when he was director of marketing and strategy for Optus’s wholesale division. “Reporting to the MD, Optus Wholesale this position was accountable for product planning, development, lifecycle management, value proposition, feature, competitive advantage and technology for the fixed, mobile and DSL product range. This included go-to-market strategy, [marketing and communications], branding and pricing,” Bowden’s LinkedIn profile states.
Prior to that point, from August 2003, Bowden held a position as director of business and wholesale services engineering at Optus.
His profile states: “Reporting to the MD Networks, this position was accountable for determining strategy, directing planning and operations, developing the engineering designs of complex customer solutions for competitive bids and the design and deployment of the Optus/SingTel IP, ATM and Voice Networks. This included leading a team of 300 staff via 8 direct reports with $180m operating expense ($150m intercarrier charges) and $55m Capex supporting $2.6b of Optus revenues.”
Prior to that point Bowden held another similar director role responsible for the engineering development, expansion and evolution of the Optus network. He held several national and regional general manager roles with Telstra from May 1995.
Bowden’s appointment is only the most recent time that appointments to NBN Co under the Coalition’s watch have come under constant scrutiny.
In late 2013, Communications Minister Turnbull refused to answer questions from the media about whether it was unethical to appoint several ex-Telstra executives with personal connections to the Liberal MP but little experience with network infrastructure rollouts to help NBN Co undertake the Strategic Review into its future broadband model.
That Strategic Review, handed down in December last year, found that it would not be possible to deliver the Coalition’s stated policy goal of delivering broadband speeds of 25Mbps to all Australians by the end of 2016 or at the projected cost, and recommended that up to a third of Australian premises theoretically already covered by HFC cable networks effectively receive no upgrade at all under a drastically revised deployment scheme.
Its recommendations were accepted by Turnbull this month, with the Minister ordering NBN Co to go ahead with the revised model, despite the lack of a cost/benefit analysis into the deployment, which the Minister had stated constantly in Opposition was necessary for the project.
Importantly, I wish to note at the conclusion of this article that I consider Grant Bowden a very fit candidate to lead the technical design of NBN Co’s network infrastructure as executive general manager of design Authority & Deployment Standards. Bowden is very obviously a highly successful senior executive with direct experience in widespread network rollouts of the type NBN Co is conducting. There are, in point of fact, few executives of his calibre in Australia.
It appears that Bowden has not worked directly for a telco for quite some years, but he is still very qualified for this role.
However, I would separately question why Ferris has had his responsibilities taken away from him, and his position inside NBN Co completely marginalised. By all accounts, Ferris did a very good job of designing NBN Co’s network infrastructure to start with, and the executive was highly respected both within NBN Co and by those dealing with the organisation. What was the point of removing him from his role?
This, of course, is a question I’ve already asked many times. I asked it when former NBN Co COO Ralph Steffens left the company in November last year. I asked it when NBN Co turfed its head of corporate and commercial Kevin Brown, chief financial officer Robin Payne and chief technology officer Gary McLaren several weeks ago.
And, as the drastic restructure of NBN Co continues to move forward, with more and more senior executives widely regarded as competent leave the organisation, I will continue to ask it. Of course, I don’t expect to receive any (official) answers.
Image credit: Screenshot of Macquarie University YouTube video