news NBN Co has confirmed it will shortly release updated statistics relating to how many premises its predominantly fibre network was deployed to over the last quarter of 2012, in what is expected to be an extremely closely watched announcement which will do much to qualify the network’s progress ahead of the upcoming Federal Election.
Up until the latter quarter of last year, NBN Co was believed to have been making relatively slow progress on deploying its network, as it had primarily been in the planning stage of the deployment. However, subsequent to that period, the company was believed to have entered what it described as its rapid ramp-up phase, where it planned to have some 758,000 premises completed or commenced by the end of 2012.
NBN Co’s progress to the end of September (see table below) appeared to show the company had not at that point started rapidly accelerating its network deployment, with the company at that stage only having passed slightly over 50,000 premises since it started deploying its network, and 179,790 satellite and fixed wireless premises. The company did not break up its satellite and wireless technologies into different figures, despite the fact that the technologies are completely unrelated in terms of NBN Co’s rollout.
In the quarter to 30 September this year, NBN Co only completely deployed fibre to a further 13,000 premises past where the network had previously been established — in the quarter to 30 June this year it had already reached 39,000. It had deployed 18,000 premises by 30 June 2011, the year previously.
NBN Co’s September statistics with respect to the number of premises it has active services at (where customers are actually using its network) similarly showed the company is making slow progress. At 30 September this year the company had just 6,358 fibre customers, and some 17,648 satellite and fixed wireless customers (again, here the company did not break up its satellite and wireless numbers). The company added only a few thousand active fibre services in the three months to 30 September.
In mid-December, NBN Co declined to provide updated statistics at that point relating to its network rollout, stating that it would only release updated details on its rollout every calendar year. However, this morning a spokesperson for the company confirmed it would in the next several weeks release a quarterly update on the company’s progress – including information on whether it had reached its goal of having 758,000 fibre premises commenced or completed by the end of 2012.
The news of the imminent statistics release comes as the company has recently significantly delayed responding to a Freedom of Information request for similar statistics. In mid-December, Delimiter filed a Freedom of Information request with NBN Co seeking updated statistics on the company’s rollout as at Friday 7 December. Normally, government entities such as NBN Co are required to respond to such FoI requests within several weeks.
However, since that time NBN Co has sought an extension of time to respond to the FoI request, stating that its office was shut down over the Christmas holiday period and that this and other factors meant that it would be unable to respond to the FoI request in the normal timeframe (which would have made the FoI request due on 10 January 2013).
“… the information requested falls outside of NBN Co’s normal reporting processes,” one of the company’s FoI officers wrote in an email to Delimiter seeking an extension to respond to the FoI request. “In that context, NBN Co staff are required to collect, review and – in particular – verify the above figures, which is a complex task.”
In further email communication, the FoI officer noted that to meet the FoI request, “NBN Co staff will need to collate and reconcile data from across various NBN Co databases”. They added: “This will take place over, roughly, the next month and it will take some time and planning, particularly for the formal reconciliation.”
The news comes the Coalition continues to sharply criticise NBN Co’s rollout speed on an ongoing basis, with Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull comparing the company’s speed to that of an “arthritic snail” and Liberal MP Paul Paul Fletcher recently describing it as a “costly failure”.
The extent to which NBN Co has rolled out its network by the time of the next Federal Election is expected to be a critical factor determining the overall future of the project. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has repeatedly indicated that he does not see value in the project and may halt or cancel it. Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has taken a more moderate approach to the project; however, Turnbull currently prefers a more limited fibre to the node rollout, compared to the fibre to the home deployment under the current NBN model. It is unclear to what extent the Coalition will continue with the current FTTH NBN deployment, should it take power at the next election.
I want to make several points here with respect to NBN Co’s transparency around the release of its rollout statistics.
Firstly, it is clear that the company’s internal reporting mechanisms are not well set up to provide information on an ongoing basis with respect to its network rollout. Sure, the Christmas holiday period fouls things up somewhat, but I think it’s important to highlight the fact here that the company is currently stating that it will take close to two months to provide basic information about its rollout.
Several readers have pointed out that the company provides a rolling month to month update on the exact details of which areas it is rolling out its network to, arguing that external observers such as myself should be able to extrapolate current rollout stats from that data. However, I have examined the information NBN Co is providing in this area, and I would point out that it only contains ‘forward-looking’ data – consisting of statistics about the timeframe in which NBN Co expects to connect each area – not actual data which shows which areas have been connected.
Personally, I find it fairly staggering that NBN Co needs an amount of time measured in months to provide updated rollout statistics. As a number of other readers have pointed out, surely its operational and business support systems do contain live statistics on how many end user premises are actively connecting to its network (the ‘databases’ which the company’s FoI officer mentioned). It should not take months to query these systems for updated stats.
Updated stats on how many premises the company’s network has physically passed will be a little harder to obtain, but I am 100 percent sure that senior NBN Co executives such as CEO Mike Quigley receive at least weekly updates estimating how the company’s network construction rollout is progressing, compiled from information provided by the various contractors and internal sources. It should not be a stretch for the company to formalise this information every month and provide it publicly … the delivery of such reports internally represents normal behaviour for any major corporation.
Secondly, I want to note that it seems clear at the moment that NBN Co is quite conscious of the need to present its rollout information in a format favourable to itself.
When the company released its rollout statistics this time 12 months ago, it did so on the 3rd of January, without fanfare, in a humble media release. This year, with an election looming and the company’s current stats looking quite anaemic in the face of continual pressure from the Opposition and hostile elements of the media, the stakes are higher, and NBN Co is currently no doubt considering its battle plan. The debate around its statistics release in several weeks – no matter what the stats themselves actually show – will be massive, and NBN Co knows this. Right now, it is no doubt girding itself for that media war.
And who can blame it for doing so? I note that the elements of the media which have made a habit of sharply criticising NBN Co at every available opportunity have continued that habit over the Christmas break. It’s a new year, it’s 2013, but nothing has changed — let the spin (and it comes from all sides simultaneously) begin.
Image credit: NBN Co