The NBN, service providers and you … what could go wrong?


This article is by Mark Gregory, a senior lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University. It was first published on The Conversation and is re-published here with permission.

analysis Unless you’ve been boycotting all forms of media in the past five years, you’ll be aware that the National Broadband Network (NBN) is well and truly on its way. For some of us the NBN is already here, and for others it will hopefully arrive in a year or two. But for most Australians, the NBN will not arrive for five to ten years. The NBN rollout map provides an estimated guide to where and when the NBN will be rolled out.

The coming of the NBN provides significant opportunities to address consumers’ concerns about the conduct of internet and phone providers but it also presents a range of significant challenges. Let me start by discussing what happens if there’s a change in government during the NBN rollout – not unlikely given recent polls suggesting this will happen in the next 18 months.

The Coalition has been scathing of the Fibre to the Home (FTTH) solution for the cabled portion of the NBN. In his recent Budget reply speech the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, said: “Why spend A$50bn on a National Broadband Network so customers can subsequently spend almost three times their current monthly fee for speeds they might not need?”. He gave a clear indication of the preferred Coalition option when he stated: “Why dig up every street when fibre to the node (FTTN) could more swiftly and more affordably deliver 21st century broadband?”.

Simply put, a fibre to the node approach would see fibre optic cable routed to “neighbourhood cabinets” with the final stretch, from neighbourhood cabinets to homes and businesses, being covered by existing copper cable.

If the Coalition forms a government at the next election (late next year) and changes direction with the NBN rollout, it’s possible that built-up areas, already delayed into the later stage of the current NBN rollout plans, will not be serviced by FTTH. It’s possible the current goal of providing FTTH to 93% of Australians will change to include a mix of FTTH and FTTN for about 80% of Australians and the other 13% will be moved on to the NBN wireless network.

One of the potential opportunities provided by the NBN rollout will be a chance to improve consumer experience of phone and internet providers.

In 2009/10 167,955 complaints were made to the telecommunications ombudsman and 197,682 complaints in 2010/11. A complaint I hear during discussions about service providers is the lack of transparency that customers find for nearly every aspect of their interaction with service providers, their use of services and network performance. Transparency related to the network performance and the customer’s interaction with service providers can be introduced using technology available today.

The status of individual network connections including all backhaul links) (the connections from the exchanges or points where customers enter the network to the carrier core networks) should be made available in real-time through the internet. This would allow internet users to check whether their service provider’s networks are down or whether they’ve encountered a localised problem or other performance issue. Also, the capacity of all aggregation (the bundling of customer traffic onto larger capacity links) and backhaul links should be made available so that customers can see in real-time what the performance is.

Included in this need for transparency is the real-time performance of the international links through which most of Australia’s online content is delivered. Customer service requests, including adding services, moving services and changing services, should be possible online and with greater transparency and tracking capability. After a customer service request has been made the customer should be able to use the service provider reference number to see the service request on the internet and to track the steps taken to satisfy the service request. This is not done currently.

Why is this important? This gem by Fairfax writer, Adam Turner, might give you a bit of an idea. His piece highlights the frustration of dealing with the Telstras and Optuses of this world. Thousands of similar stories are available online and chances are you or someone close to you has had a similar experience.

Recently I moved home and tried to move my Telstra landline and Business ADSL on the day of the move. I have services on the ADSL that must remain online 24/7 so this was a critical part of my move to a new home and I thought it was all ready to go. Unfortunately, when I first spoke with Telstra about the move, I was told that it would take up to 10 days to move the ADSL after the Telstra landline was moved. I explained how important it was for the phone and ADSL to move at the same time, and was told that it could be done within four hours if a technician was available at the exchange.

Several days later, after initially accepting this explanation and putting in the service request, I had second thoughts and arranged for a new landline service to be connected at my new home so that the old landline could remain connected until the ADSL was moved to the new home. Sure enough, on the night before the move my landline at the old place was disconnected thus also disconnecting the Telstra Business ADSL.

I called Telstra immediately (at midnight) to see if the landline had been connected at my new home and that the ADSL would be moved that morning and was prompty told it would take up to ten days for the ADSL to be connected, even though it was a business service and that no guarantees should have been given. I explained that the old landline should not have been disconnected until the ADSL had been moved and that an earlier service request to move the landline and ADSL from the old home to the new home had been processed.

When I mentioned this service request had been cancelled and I had placed a new service request for a new landline at the new home and for the ADSL to be moved whilst both landlines were to remain operational the Telstra representative looked at the records and said: “it appears a mistake has occurred at our end”. Panic set in and I then spent about eight hours on my mobile to Telstra, talking to about 20 different people while they worked out what went wrong.

After this, I finally got connected to a very kind and helpful Telstra Business ADSL service representative who reconnected the landline and ADSL at my old home. I was a nervous and tired wreck by the end of the day. My Telstra Business ADSL was moved to my new home about seven days later.

Customers currently make service requests on the phone and many service providers do not provide written confirmation of the service request. Instead the customer is give a reference number, leaving them in the dark about what the service provider is actually going to do. A clear issue is the lead times for service requests to occur. Most service providers only commit to carrying out a service request at some point in the future – say five to ten days – or at some time in the future dependent on a wholesale service provider, such as Telstra Wholesale.

A wholesale provider owns the infrastructure (e.g. the copper cable from exchanges to your home) and service providers lease access to the infrastructure to provide services such as fixed telephony or ADSL. Service providers have recently made moves to reduce the time taken for consumers to get access to their services. A major step forward with the NBN will be the capability to gain access to more than one service provider at the same time.

Initially customers will be able to access one data service provider and two voice service providers (though one is required to be the same as the data service provider). If the customer utilises a service wholesaler then it will be possible to get access to services from more than one service provider.

You might ask: “How will I ever get the service providers to move their services on the same day if I move to a new home?” Chaos right?

This upcoming multi-service-provider feature of the NBN needs to be explained and a new industry code of practice needs to be introduced to ensure service providers improve service management practices. Failure to address how service providers offering services over the NBN are coordinated will see complaints to the ombudsman grow to new heights.

The NBN will provide Australians with a raft of exciting new opportunities. For services providers, it will provide a much-needed chance to improve their customer relations and procedures. And who wouldn’t welcome that?

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


  1. Sounds like things haven’t changed at Telstra.

    When we moved house we arranged for Telstra to move the phone from the place we were renting to the place we’d bought 3 days after settlement. That way we could clean it up, move stuff over and then have the phone ‘go live’ when we were moved in.

    The removalists for the people we bought our house from managed to snag the phone line with their truck and ripped it off the side of the house. The vendors told us that day, so we rang Telstra to cancel the phone transfer until the phone at our new place was repaired. All good.

    So two days later Telstra disconnected the phone at the rental and transferred the number to a coil of wire sitting at the base of a pole. It took over a week for Telstra to come out and restring the wire.

    I hope that the B2B systems with the NBN mean that service provides start with a clean slate and that shoddy systems that mean jobs are lost or ignored are thrown out.

  2. My neighborhood cabinet is 5kms away. So I will likely see no benefit from the NBN with 5kms of old copper between us. And the NBN isn’t even coming here for at least five years.
    I had a recent crazy experience with telcos.
    We had Optus ADSL and phone package. Our Telstra shop twisted our arm to switch to their package, then after the ten day wait for ADSL (as mentioned above) announced they couldn’t offer us ADSL, just the landline phone. When we went back to Optus, they said they no longer offered a phone service in our area, just ADSL. But we were on Optus home phone just two weeks earlier!!!
    Talk about consumer choice.

  3. Heavens to Murgatroyd Dan and Muso, how dare you suggest that Malcolm and Tony are deceiving us, Heretics, you deserve burning at the stake for suggesting that the private sector Don’t do it better and cheaper and with the competition cheaper. Sheer Heresy. Cease and desist from such foul utterances

  4. I moved home recently. The previous owners had moved out at least two months earlier, but the day we moved in we still had water, gas, electricity ready to go. Our broadband took another three weeks to get properly sorted. Of course, no-one is going to die of thirst, hunger or cold if they don’t have internet access in their new abode, but it would be nice to think that under the NBN there is a similar readiness of access upon moving home to the internet, the 4th utility of our world.

  5. Effectively, it’s all about making broadband another utility service – and elevated to the same importance as water, electricity, gas and a phone line.

  6. When we moved house, Telstra created a unmitigated disaster for Optus and thus Internode. Cut us off a week earlier than expected at the old house and then 8 weeks to get our phone line and another 4 days for ADSL. All the while we had service tone on the line at the new house.
    Luckily for us Internode had provided us with a VoIP Line and our Router supported 3G back up. After griping like hell we had the PSTN line forwarded to the VoIP service and we were fine until Internode finally got Telstra (God knows how) to do their job.
    Even then, we found Telstra refused our request for local number portability (because they just….could) so then the PSTN was next to useless for us and we had to get them to remove it as they hadn’t provided specifically what we asked and so we went Naked DSL.
    Putting it bluntly, I recommend to people now to get a VoIP service, a router with 3g backup, request your line to be moved whenever you want and organize or implement a forward to the VoIP service or port the number if your not going back to PSTN. Then arrange the new service you wish at the other end. If you do it right, the phone will go to the VoIP service. The ADSL fails and you auto switch to 3G and VoIP still works. Move to the new house and plug in the router and as 3G connects, your working with Internet and phone. When the ADSL finally comes alive, it switches over and works as it used to.
    Yes it is poor that one Corporation requires so much expense to work around. But hey, it works.

    • Well we can all look forward to that sort of treatment forever more if the NBN is stopped…!

      • I would not say that Alex. No matter what Government, Multinational Corporation, or Dictator (same thing) decrees, if the people desire it otherwise, human ingenuity will always win out. We will just work around the failure no matter who constructs it.
        Need an example? Bit torrent and Hollywood. LOL Government suppression (anywhere it happens) and the Internet. ROFL
        If the law is counter productive to the people’s requirements, sorry, they will always work around it. Right or wrong doesn’t come into it in reality. It’s human nature.

        • Well that’s very nice, but I have Australia’s comms history pre-NBN as my evidence and it isn’t very rosy.

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