Reality check: NBN Syntheo delays not significant


analysis If you believe what you read over the past week, you’d think that construction delays on the part of contractor Syntheo have significantly derailed the progress of the National Broadband Network. However, as is often the case with the NBN, the truth couldn’t be more different. The fact is that network remains squarely on track to meet its June 2013 rollouts targets.

If you follow news in Australia’s telecommunications industry at all, it would have been hard to miss the flurry of hyped-up headlines which flooded Australia’s mediasphere over the past week concerning what appeared to be a dramatic disclosure of significant rollout problems with the National Broadband Network.

“NBN contractor on track to miss targets”, screamed the Australian newspaper (surprise). The Financial Review went further, headlining its article on the subject “NBN Co hits ‘significant’ delays”, and followed it up with an article complaining that NBN Co wouldn’t detail the problems in its construction rollout. iTNews claimed that NBN Co had ‘fingered’ Syntheo for what it described as a “premises-passed shortfall”, while iTWire wrote that the company was in a “struggle against time” to change its construction schedule, and Computerworld complained that NBN Co had “downgraded” its construction targets. And, of course Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull added his two bobs’ worth as usual, complaining that NBN Co had not connected any services in WA, SA and NT after 19 months of construction work.

The media coverage of this supposed issue over the past week has been universally slanted in the same direction. If you believe the prevailing sentiment in Australia’s media on this issue, you would come away with the overwhelming impression that the NBN rollout is broadly failing; a flawed and delayed rollout by incompetent contractors fleecing NBN Co for billions, managed by a company of overpaid, bungling fools; incapable of meeting even their own low targets and blithely ignoring the entire unfolding disaster while enthusiastically guzzling premium blend coffee from designer mugs.

It’s a compelling picture: And it’s the sort of thing the media loves. ‘Good news doesn’t sell newspapers’, as the old adage goes; far better to fill the pages of the newspapers, news sites and blogs with doom and tragedy. That’ll bring in the clicks for sure. However, as with much of the reporting of the National Broadband Network over the past half-decade, in this case the media got this one overwhelmingly wrong.

To understand why, it’s necessary to go back and re-examine what NBN Co’s targets actually are; and show from first principles why the company isn’t actually behind on its rollout and why the perceived delays in Syntheo’s rollout of the NBN’s fibre in certain states isn’t statistically significant.

The definitive source for data on NBN Co’s rollout targets is, as many of you will know, its latest corporate plan published in August 2012 (PDF). That plan clearly states — on probably its most-read page — that NBN Co’s target number of brownfields fibre premises which it aims to have passed by the end of June 2013 is 286,000.


This is the prime benchmark which NBN Co will be measured against at the end of June. At this stage, just months before the upcoming Federal Election in September, NBN Co’s performance against this key figure will be one of the key debating points which will be taken up by both the Government and the Coalition to argue about whether the NBN rollout is meeting its targets. This is the figure on which NBN Co’s performance will primarily be judged this year.

So, how is NBN Co tracking against this figure at the moment?

Thanks to data released by NBN Co at the end of January, combined with monthly projection charts NBN released last year we can make a judgement on this issue. In January NBN Co revealed that at the end of January, its brownfields fibre network — the one which will eventually cover most of Australia — had passed close to 50,000 premises.

If you examine that figure, comparing it to the month by month rollout chart which NBN Co released in 2012, you’ll find that it matches up almost precisely. In other words, NBN Co has always been expecting to have just under 50,000 brownfields fibre premises passed by the end of January; and it met that target.

Over the next few months, it expects to hit targets of just over 50,000 (at the end of February), about 75,000 (at the end of March) and 110,000 (at the end of April). Then the figure is expected to jump dramatically to around 200,000 at the end of May and then to about 286,000 at the end of June.

So what’s all the fuss about?

The extreme media hype generated last week is based on the fact that in October, NBN Co released a secondary rollout statistic. This wasn’t a hard target, but it was a forecast of how many premises the company expected to have passed on a monthly basis over the succeeding nine months or so, based on actual construction activity by its contractor targets.

This figure raised the projected June 2013 target by just 14,000 — representing a raise of less than five percent.

In a Senate Estimates hearing last week, NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley revealed that due to a few problems with one contractor — Syntheo — in a few states — WA, SA and the NT — the company would be unlikely to meet those revised June 2013 construction forecasts. NBN Co is still, confidently predicting, however, that it will meet the 286,000 figure which has always represented its hard targets for that period. And in fact it is likely still a little ahead of its monthly target projection.

Do you see what happened here? NBN Co issued an informal forecast projection less than five percent higher than its original June 2013 target. Then, a few months later, it revised that target back down as construction realities hit. Let’s see precisely what Mike Quigley said about this in the Senate Estimates hearing which caused so much media activity last week. Quigley said:

“The first chart that you will see there is on our fibre to the premises brownfields performance. You will see that the lower set of five bar graphs is what we presented to the JCNBN in October. You can see that we have labelled those as the baseline. Our intention is to keep a running comparison compared to that baseline, so what we have done this time round is to present another set of charts, the upper set, which is the actuals to the end of January and the forecast to June. As you can see, we are tracking reasonably well against the projections we made in October, although, as you would expect in a project like this, there are some ups and downs as we progress through the roll-up ramp.”


“As you know, we have four construction partners working towards the June 2013 target of 286,000 premises passed in brownfields. The chart shows that, collectively, our construction partners achieved the numbers we projected by end of January. You will also notice, if you look carefully there, that we have slightly lowered the number of premises forecast to be passed by the end of June 2013. In October we were forecasting just under 300,000 premises passed; we are now forecasting almost exactly the target of 286,000. The reason for the change is that one of our construction partners has significantly reduced its forecast since we presented back in the October time frame.”

“We are working closely with Syntheo to try and recover their original forecast.”

This series of statements from Quigley covers it all. Syntheo’s experiencing some problems, which has meant NBN Co has slightly (by less than five percent!) revised down its construction forecast for June 2013, based on actual construction activity. However, not only may NBN Co still make up the 300,000 number (either with Syntheo or other contractors which are performing better), but it’s still 100 percent on track to meet its hard benchmark figure of 286,000 brownfields fibre premises passed by the end of June 2013.

What we have here is a situation precisely the way Quigley characterised it: “Some ups and downs” as the company progresses its rollout. In short, this is extremely normal activity which would be likely to be seen within any major infrastructure construction effort; a five percent deviance from any projected forecast is just completely usual within projects of this scale; in fact, most project management types would take it into account right from the start.

If anything, Quigley and the rest of the management team at NBN Co should be commended for how closely they are keeping this gargantuan technology project on track. The rollout the NBN currently shows no signs of blowing out on anywhere near the same scale and time-frame that other major government technology projects, such as Queensland Health’s payroll systems disaster or the Myki or T-card projects in Victoria and NSW have, for example. It currently appears well-managed and well-within acceptable budgetary and timeframe parameters.

In my opinion, the real story to have emerged from the Senate Estimates NBN hearings last week was the disgraceful behaviour of Coalition senators during the process.

If you read the transcript of the hearings (I encourage you to; it’s available online here in PDF format; the NBN Co part starts from the bottom of page 99), it will quickly become apparent that several of the Coalition Senators involved had no intent of displaying even a modicum of respect for Quigley and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy during the process.

What are we to make, for instance, of Senator Bill Heffernan’s statement that if Conroy turned off his laptop, which he had with him to aid in the Senate Estimates process, his “brain would go dead”? Or his following statement that Conroy was “full of shit” — a statement he made repeatedly? Or Senator Ian McDonald’s statement that NBN Co was “full of Labor Party apparatchiks right from the top”? Or Heffernan’s later statement that Quigley was “brain-dead”?

These selective quotes don’t do justice the farcical situation which emerged in that particular Senate Estimates hearing. There is no doubt that Conroy filed some of his own barbs with the Coalition, but that in general the session as a whole was characterised by constant interjections and badgering by the Coalition Senators on the Senate committee examining the NBN; interjections which often ignored the information which Quigley appeared to be honestly attempting to provide about the rollout.

One measure of the farcical nature of the ongoing Senate Estimates hearings with respect to the NBN is the fact that during calendar year 2012, NBN Co was asked some 444 questions on notice by Senators and members of the Joint Parliamentary Committee into the NBN — including 192 alone from Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham. Upon examining the questions, it’s possible to ascertain — as Senator Conroy pointed out during last week’s session — that a large amount of them could be answered by the questioners themselves by simply viewing the appropriate section of NBN Co’s comprehensive website.

Yet it was the supposed delays in NBN Co’s rollout schedule which predominantly made headlines last week; not the bad behaviour of the Coalition Senators in the Senate Estimates session; nor the waste of resources which is currently under way at NBN Co as the company attempts to file responses to the hundreds of questions it is being hit with about its operations.

If you follow telecommunications news in Australia, or even just national affairs with respect to the NBN, it must be getting hard for many people at this stage not to become overwhelmingly cynical about what they read. What does it matter, many people must ask themselves, how well NBN Co is managing its network rollout, if the company is criticised no matter what it does — even if it is squarely meeting its goals? What does the whole political debate matter, many people must ask themselves, when the Opposition can derail a whole Senate Estimates session to the extent that it descends into a farce and disrespects hard-working and loyal executives such as NBN Co chief Mike Quigley? After years of this, I’m sure many people are now getting jack of the whole situation.

However, at this point I think it’s important to remember that regardless of what is being reported or what anyone is saying, the work NBN Co is doing (and, by all indications, doing well) is objectively important and extremely valuable to society. There’s a huge amount of flak being thrown around about the project right now. Let’s not lose sight of its worthy aims; a massive increase in basic broadband service delivery to all Australians. Those of us who’ve been around the block a few times will know that it’s usually not what’s being said that matters in most situations, but what’s being done. And there is a great deal of evidence right now that NBN Co is doing plenty. It’s a pity the same can’t be said for its detractors.

Image credit (graphs): NBN Co


  1. Excellent analysis Renai.

    Going straight to the source rather than lazy “he said, she said” arguments from other media is the main reason why I continue to hold this site up as a diamond in the rough.

    Truth first, rhetoric second.

    I wish I could add something more to the discussion than a congratulatory post, but …. errrr … you already said it all, lol.

  2. So basically they are on target but they wanted to try and do better because of this they get whacked by the press.
    The lesson we as a public can take from this is if you try and do your best the coalition will punish you.

  3. Unsure. I have been watching Applecross, WA very closely, which is a POI.

    According to NBNCo, services should all be available for switch on/connection in April.

    From what I can see, there are zero premises enabled yet, which gives them a month or so to do the whole suburb…

    I can’t see them making it even closely. :(

    • Based on the NBN co rollout information, the Applecross POI is active now.
      The area included in that POI reaches across to Victoria park, which has FASM due to start being activated by May-June period of time. The applecross suburb FASM is due for a September-October activation.
      So, no brownfields activations have been made, but there are greenfields and brownfields FASM’s will start being activated over the next couple of months, as per Renai’s article.
      The up to date rollout information can be found at
      This is updated typically mid month for the previous months work.

      • Actual street address checks leading up to now always said that LAST date for service availability would be April 2013. The POI may be complete, but this means little in terms of houses connected.

        April has now vanished from the info on the NBNCo rollout map. Actual walking around the suburb shows very little work going on and definitely no fiber installation yet to the address of interest.

        Sorry but they aren’t going to make the April date.

        • I have similar misgivings regarding the Valley View area (5MOD-01) area in SA. This is supposed to be “ready for service” in June 2013. With no discernible activity in the area, I can’t see this date being met either.

          Valley View and Applecross are both likely covered by the Syntheo contract…

  4. Grats for the analysis and +1 on the commentary re media and govt Committee. Couldn’t agree more.

  5. The coalition’s mandate is to destroy the NBN.

    I’m not seeing any softening of this stance, and recent (public record) statements bare out the intention of an Abbott lead government to do whatever it takes to kill it. Even if that means turning an investment into a huge debt millstone for any number of successive governments.

    The actual value of the entire project, and what it will do is being drowned out by almost banshee levels of howling coming from the Coalition; when it can’t even stump up an alternative policy pre-election.

    If that doesn’t trigger warning bells, I don’t know what else could.

    • I’m constantly amazed that the Coalition polls so well, considering their lack of real policy….heck, what policy they do seem to be putting out are rehashes of failed 1960’s ALP one (Top End), graft to rich mums (Tony’s parental leave) and a climate change policy that wont even meet it’s own vastly reduced targets.

      Welcome to the age of the Politics of Personality, not policy :(

    • Except it is not really personality. It is about who has the support of the main-stream media. The Coalition could wear horse-head masks and walk in circles clucking like chickens (hmmm, would we be able to tell the difference?) and the News Ltd and Fairfax media would simply crow about their forward thinking and general awesomeness. The ALP or Greens could simultaneously cure cancer, create world peace, solve world hunger and shit enormous gold bricks and it would be reported in the media as “ALP seeks to devalue gold and destroy economy”.

      Unfortunately, it appears that the majority of the population gets all of their information from the MSM and does not question it. It must be extremely frustrating to those in government that all the significant reforms that they are setting up; reforms that will set Australia up to cope with the realities of the 21st century, are ignored in favour of news articles about the cost per cup of coffee at the NBN.

      Personally, I would love to see an ALP-Green-Independent coalition return to power again for another term. It has eliminated the homogeneity of a single party (the LNP might as well be one party, their ideologies are so closely aligned now) majority and encouraged a level of parliamentary debate that we have not seen in Australia for a very long time. For me, any parliament that requires the cooperation of multiple factions that have competing agendas is a healthy one.

      Sorry about the rant, I have just been getting very angry about politics recently. It must be crossing the 40 age threshold.

      • “Sorry about the rant, I have just been getting very angry about politics recently. It must be crossing the 40 age threshold.”

        Yeah, me too (to pretty well your entire comment :o)).

        I think the ALP needs some radical reform (in the vein of the Review2010 report by Steve Bracks, John Faulkner & Bob Carr), and the LNP is basically a waste of good oxygen in their current form (they need to clean house and get back to their roots as much as anyone). Even the Greens need to get their house in order and align more with the mainstream (It’s a crying shame they can’t clone Scott Ludlam).

        I’m not really happy voting for any of them as they currently stand, but view Labor as the lessor of two evils for the lower house, and the Greens as a check on the other two in the Senate, though I’d love to see someone form a “centrist” party that isn’t bogged down with left and right dogmas.

        • Wow, that is exactly how I vote. Of course I live in the safe Labor seat of Jagajaga so it does not really matter how I vote in the house of representatives.

          I agree that the Labor party is the lesser of two evils. While they have some excellent policies (carbon pricing, mining tax, NBN) they also have had some stupid ideas like net filtering, and data retention (I know that is mainly the AG but still).

          On the whole, Labor politicians appear no more corrupt or incompetent than other politicians although, they do seem less inclined to lie and say whatever they think will get them votes.

          So, they could be better, could be a lot worse and with Greens and Independents holding the balance of power they can’t do anything too stupid without someone noticing. Win!

  6. How senators can get away with this kind of behaviour is beyond me. Their comments should be quoted extensively by their seat rivals in the next senate election to bring their disgraceful behaviour to the attention of the voters who put them there as a minimum – personally I’d prefer the enaction of laws sacking anyone who lacks the ability to follow simple logic or basic social graces. If you can’t even function in polite, civilised society what business do you have directing it?

    • ” anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job” DNA

  7. Thank you Renai, Delimiter sets the bar that the rest of Australian media continually falls under.

    And as to the Liberal Senators, we can’t really expect much else from them, Liberal voters actually reward them for that kind of behaviour…and it gets reinforced the further up the polls they go.

  8. All you have written is correct Renai, and nice to see some nicely presented facts on this.

    Unfortunately, the NBN project is facing a political attack. I have written about this on Whirlpool and the fact of the matter is that NBNco cannot be seen to miss the 286K figure in any way, shape or form without opening itself up to massive criticism from the LNP during the last 3 months of the election campaign. If the targets are missed, it only lends credence to the ‘Labor Waste, NBN too slow, too expensive’ dog whistles of the Coalition.

    I wrote in that:
    “In order to ‘feel’ like progress is made, we need to see some of these major brownfield areas being switched on and ‘going purple’. It’s easy for most of the general public to bring the rollout map to cover their capital city, and turn off the 1- and 3-year areas, and just show what is under construction and how much of that is actually ready to go. To the average person, looks like smoke and mirrors.”

    Lots of areas have been orange for a long time (2LID-01 and 2RIV-01, I’m looking at you), and the public can see that yes, lots of areas are ‘announced’ but none have really been finished. POLITICALLY we need FSAMs completed and people connecting to them.

    The issue is that there is going to be scant time for customer connections in June as quite a number of FSAMs have been pushed backwards – Syntheo is the main culprit here although Visionstream and Silcar are not without fault either. If all these FSAMs come online in the last week of May, how are they going to get the projected 44K active connections online in a month. There simply isn’t the labour of technicians to do the premises fibre, PCD, Fly fibre and NTD install for each premises to fulfil RSP orders in a reasonable timeframe.

    I raised this issue last year ( at ) and I do not believe the situation has improved – far from it! It has gotten WORSE as they keep pushing FSAM activation dates back. This massive dump of passed premises yet not enough technicians to cope with install demand. You can see it now with plenty on Whirlpool within Crace (9CRC-05 and -06) having issues where the installers will only go as far as the first power point, otherwise it takes too long and they want to do a ‘Custom install’.

    • In order to get public opinion swaying TOWARD the NBN is to get people online with it and seeing the improvements that it brings. Yes, it is a popular policy but it’s easy to cancel if only a select few are connected.

      Once more people get connected and show their family and frends what it is like and how great it is, they will want it too. Selling the TBN/AtomicBanana will be impossible for the Coalition as soon as one part of the community has something, the rest will want it too. Easiest way to lose the election is to take away something that the people want.

      Politically, we not only need to get FSAMs completed and lit, but we also need to get as many people connected as it is humanly possible. Good word of mouth will get the project over the line.

  9. How to lie with statistics 101:
    Draw your graphs to show time along the bottom and the running total on the vertical axis rather than the extra done in each time period. It makes it look like the rate that work is being done is accelerating far faster than it actually is.

    • Yes that must be it Gordon *sigh*

      And I’m sure had they done it the other way, you strangely… still wouldn’t have been pleased.

      Thanks for your typically enlightening input :/

    • Show me one time series graph that doesn’t use X for the dates Gordon. Why the hell would you want them to do a time series graph in a non-standard, radical way that probably doesn’t even make sense?? What are you, some sort of progressive lefty?

  10. Nbn meeting projections made in october in December is not very impressive and says little for the project management skills of the company.

    In dec2011 nbnco wanted to have passed 103k brownfield premises by dec2012. They revised down that estimate over the next 12 months to less than half that.

    The june2013 target remained the same making the “ramp up” more and more vertical. Is it any suprise syntheo is having troubles with the ramp up?

    In Greenfield nbnco has passed again less than half the premises they had planned to.

    And in 2013 they majority of Fsams due to go online in January and February have been delayed.

    If you are going to analyze the rollout performance of nbnco why not take it up to the latest rollout data, feb 14th? On whirlpool monsta has detailed monthly posts analyzing these reports. You might not like what you find though.

    • @Michael

      In dec2011 nbnco wanted to have passed 103k brownfield premises by dec2012. They revised down that estimate over the next 12 months to less than half that.

      That was before the changes made in the New Corporate Plan. NBNCo. were made painfully aware of the fact that the government has drastically changed their scope in Greenfields AND the Telstra deal delay had pushed start back by 9 months. Comparing the old CP to the new CP and saying “therefore, they’re behind schedule” is like comparing how stocktake progressed when the fire alarm went off for half the day.

      The june2013 target remained the same making the “ramp up” more and more vertical.


      NBN Corporate Plan 2010, June 2013 Brownfields: 805 000
      NBN Corporate Plan 2012, June 2013 Brownfields: 286 000

      Either you can’t add or you meant that to be Dec 2012 and therefore your entire point is moot.

      And in 2013 they majority of Fsams due to go online in January and February have been delayed.

      The entire completion of the FSAM has been delayed. But NBNCo. have moved to FDA completion areas, so 80% of an FSAM may be online in January, when it was supposed to be, while the final 20% might be online in Feb. Besides, what Majority? In January and February they were supposed to pass (rough numbers) 45 FSAMs. I believe 12 have been delayed. That’s FAR from the majority.

      If you are going to analyze the rollout performance of nbnco why not take it up to the latest rollout data, feb 14th?

      Because this analysis is based upon the Senate Estimates. The February numbers only show that FULL completion of FSAMs has been delayed, but more and more partial completed FSAMs are being added every month.

  11. By the way, good article Renai.

    I’ll be interested to see what Turnbull says, if anything, about your analysis.

    Any more jumping of marine wildlife maybe?…. ;P

  12. Well done Renai :)
    Its great to see factual and objective reporting.
    Delimiter is setting the bar very high.

  13. Delimiter makes me laugh, there has been delay after delay with the NBN and every time you make excuses. You call it factual and objective reporting. The facts are the NBN has been delayed several times now and the NBN Co has had to alter the roll out timetable – fact. What do have to show after 5 years? Very, very little.

    You engage in petty name calling when people do not indulge your demand for a taxpayer subsidised NBN. This government hasn’t rolled out any major project successfully. What makes you think the NBN will be any different? Nice to see you are still optimistic after five years of failure.

    You make excuses when the roll out is delayed and you make up stories when fibre passes houses and people do not sign up.

    But what will hurt the most is your demands for the NBN won’t be an election issue. At least not the Labor version.

    • Can you unbar Alain and ban this guy instead please Renai?

      At least I get a smile from alains antics, and he even manages a good point every so often….TLG on the other hand is just an ignorant bigot.

  14. The rollout is “100 percent on track” only if you believe what Quigley is saying. There is no way for the public to test that assertion other than to wait for official progress to be released every six months or so. Monthly data on key metrics would be a lot more useful, but getting that from NBN Co is like pulling hens teeth.

    For example, NBN Co was asked via a question on notice at the October estimates about the take-up rates in Tasmania. NBN Co duly replied with a cookie cutter non-answer. When, at February estimates, NBN Co was asked by Coalition senators why they had failed to answer the previous QoN, Conroy responded by saying he would put the question on notice again!

    Its no wonder Coalition senators were so angry when NBN Co and Conroy did all they could to fustrate the Estimates process. If a parliamentary commitee can’t get straight answers out of NBN Co then what hope for the rest of us?

    • The Coalition has deliberately peppered NBNco with a barrage of questions that they don’t even want to know the answer to. Most of which are freely available from the NBN website.

      It is a harassment tactic. Conroy not being able to respond to this query is their sole ‘victory’ out this tactic so far.

      I think the Coalition definitely deserve another slow clap for that one.

    • I shudder to think what deals may end up being done by the Libs to “Save Australian Media” (only Rupert’s bits though).

  15. I find these delays to be fairly frustrating. My area is scheduled to be upgraded soon. It would have been even sooner, however ETSA decided to try and screw NBNco, and ended up wasting months of everyone’s time.

    Given the spectre of the Coalition coming in and sacrificing the NBN on their bloodthirsty altar of confused ideology, any delays at all are very frustrating indeed.

    • Me too, my area is slated to be started this year but im hearing thru my sources that Syntheo staff dont have a clue what they are doing (they’ve been hiring sparkies with no fibre training or experience and they are cocking things up apparently). :-(

  16. Another of these articles has popped up at AFR:

    “In October 2012, NBN Co said it would pass about 300,000 existing homes by June this year. Mr Quigley told the committee he now expected to reach 286,000, as per its business plan.”

    I guess it’s good that they’ve mentioned that the 286,000 target is part of the business plan, but it’s also under the heading “TARGETS FALLEN WELL SHORT”.

    On a side note, the article relates to the announcement that NBN will take over from Syntheo in the NT. I think this will be a great move, especially if they can get closer to that 300,000 target – It will refelct well on how competent NBN Co’s management actually are.

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