news Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has gone on the warpath regarding NBN Co’s performance in rolling out fibre to greenfields housing estates, touring a number of estates nationwide and damning what he said was NBN Co’s “extraordinary incompetence” in its greenfields rollout schedule.
In a press conference yesterday, Turnbull said that in January 2011 NBN Co had taken over responsibility for broadband rollouts in new housing estates — known as ‘greenfields’ areas as there was no existing telecommunications infrastructure in those areas.
“By June this year, they had connected less than 1000 houses. Now during that time they have received applications from developers for connections for 130,000 lots and according to the latest housing statistics available to us, there are about 74,000 homes in new estates in Australia without any fixed line communications at all.”
Turnbull said that several weeks ago he had visited a new housing estate in Petrie at Petrie, Mango Hill in Queensland where the pits and pipes had been installed eight months ago. “No sign of the NBN to put in any of the cables,” said Turnbull. “The residents have no fixed line telecommunications at all. They don’t know when the NBN Co will turn up. And one resident said that when she turned up and pleaded for a date to come, the NBN person said to here: ‘Madame, just assume that we’re not coming at all.'”
“Around Australia there are thousands of people in new housing estates who now have no telecommunications other than a mobile phone. And that is a consequence of the extraordinary incompetence of the NBN Co,” Turnbull added. “Now Senator Conroy has to take responsibility for this. The Acting Prime Minister, Mr Swan, obviously has no interest in the issue. He gave his usual non-answer to the question today and doesn’t seem to take much interest in the matter. But this is a real looming crisis for thousands of Australians who – it’s not just a matter of them not having access to optical fibre, they have no fixed line telecommunications whatsoever.”
According to the Liberal MP, the solution to the dilemma is to “not stamp out competition” from private sector suppliers of greenfields telecommunications networks.
“In fact OptiComm which is just one of the private sector private deployment companies has in fact connected thousands of residents — but of course it’s very hard for it to compete with the NBN Co. which is going out to developers and saying we’ll put the fibre in for you for nothing, for free. And of course a lot of developers sign up to that and then the NBN Co. simply doesn’t turn up,” said Turnbull.
“The better approach, which is what we proposed, is for developers to be encouraged to use the private sector suppliers and if they put in a network which fits the technical specifications of the NBN Co. the NBN Co. should acquire it. Unless the private sector deployment companies are allowed to get back into business and to compete on a level playing field, we’re going to be seeing a bigger and bigger telecommunications black-hole with no Wi-Line telecommunications in these greenfield housing estates.”
Turnbull said that over the past 18 months Telstra had connected over 35,000 homes with copper, with Opticomm and others had connected over 8,000 homes with fibre. “So the private sector is still delivering where it is permitted to operate,” he added. “Senator Conroy must explain how the $100 million contract awarded to Fujitsu in 2011 to roll out the NBN in new estates delivered value for money to taxpayers. And why the contract to Fujitsu was recently renewed.”
NBN Co did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the issue this morning, but the company told AAP that Turnbull had exaggerated the backlog situation, and that greenfields housing developers could still choose to contract private sector companies for broadband rollouts — with NBN Co being the provider of last resort.
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy strongly defended NBN Co’s performance in deploying infrastructure to greenfields estates, in a press conference in early August.
He pointed out that NBN Co had drastically changed its approach to greenfields environments over the past several years. Some estates have been handed back to Telstra to complete, while in some cases, NBN Co’s estimates of premises to be covered by fibre in these areas have not proven accurate. For example, Conroy gave the example of an estate in Western Sydney which had some 700 premises slated to be constructed, but where only 100 houses had actually been built, partially due to a substantial decline in the overall housing market.
“Is NBN Co short of its target by 600 homes … because there aren’t homes there to connect?” Conroy asked the audience with respect to the Western Sydney example.
The greenfields issue has been bumping along under the radar for several years now with respect to the National Broadband Network rollout. It’s a heated issue, because, as Turnbull has highlighted, new home buyers in these areas often have little to no visibility on when their premise is actually going to get broadband, and the creation of NBN Co has had a somewhat detrimental effect upon regulatory certainty for existing companies operating in this area.
However, the fact also remains that greenfields estates represent a tiny (and I do mean tiny) proportion of the NBN rollout as a whole, and this kind of uncertainty is nothing new for these kinds of regions, which are also often struggling to get authorities to deploy public transportion and other utilities to their areas. These are not established residential zones but completely new zones — and infrastructure is extremely slow to roll out in general.
I feel that Turnbull is perhaps exaggerating the situation with respect to greenfields estates and the NBN. It’s easy to head out there and find estates with no connections that have been waiting for a while for them. But is it the case that all greenfields estates rollouts are substantially delayed, or that there is an endemic problem in this area? I don’t quite think so — or if that is the case, then Turnbull has not met the burden of evidence yet to prove his case.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull