Voice from the outer world: Five questions Simon Hackett should be asking NBN Co


opinion/analysis by Renai LeMay
12 November 2013
Image credit: Internode

That moment which many Australian technologists fervently hoped for but never expected to see has come to pass: Simon Hackett has been appointed to the board of the National Broadband Network Company. But what questions should the Internode founder be asking NBN Co’s executive management team? Here’s five ideas to start with.

Right now, there’s a lot of excitement in the telecommunications industry regarding the appointment announced this morning of Internode founder Simon Hackett to the board of the National Broadband Network Company. And it’s not hard to see why.

Much of the industry, at this point, retains a deep cynicism about the actions which new Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition in general have taken with respect to the NBN project as a whole since the conservative side of politics swept to power in the recent Federal Election. Appointing a controversial new NBN Co executive chairman who’s been out of the industry for almost a decade? Hand-picking several other NBN Co executive staff with personal connections to Turnbull or the Coalition but little direct experience deploying fibre telecommunications infrastructure? Appointing a slab of new external consultants? Radically altering the NBN future rollout map? None of these actions have sat comfortably with the Australian population with regard to an important infrastructure project they are keenly interested in.

Hackett’s appointment, as the wave of rejoicing on social media today demonstrates, is the first real win for Turnbull in the post-election national debate about the future of the NBN under the Coalition. It is the first step Turnbull has taken with respect to NBN Co which the general public will wholeheartedly approve of.

The appointment strongly demonstrates that Turnbull is not afraid of having independent voices on NBN Co’s board. Hackett has been a strident critic of quite a few of NBN Co’s actions and policies in general and has not been afraid to go toe to toe with previous Communications Minister Stephen Conroy on the issue, blasting the Labor Senator repeatedly in public for his NBN missteps. His appointment signals that NBN Co’s board and management team over the next several years will not wholly be composed of ex-Telstra executives with close connections to Turnbull or the Coalition in general. Hackett’s not a “yes man”, by any measure.

It also helps that Hackett has usually eventually been proved correct in his criticisms of the NBN, despite the fact that his comments on the project have often gone against the mainstream view at the time he espoused them. It seems very clear that Australians can rely on the Internode founder to be a strong force for holding the NBN project as a whole on track and helping to make the right decisions with respect to the project.

Then too, the executive’s vision, transparency and guts bring a weight to NBN Co’s board that it had previously been lacking.

Not for nothing (and not just for their similar choice of facial hair and elegant glasses either) has your writer previously compared Hackett to Gordon Freeman, the stubborn protagonist of Valve’s seminal video game Half-Life 2. Hackett has Freeman’s drive, energy, and very likely his engineering skills with a crowbar. For the NBN, Hackett has long been the right man in the wrong place. His appointment this morning perhaps places him where he can be most useful to the project.

Having said all this, I want to introduce a note of caution to those who are already pegging all their hopes for the salvation of the ailing NBN project on Hackett. In the immortal words of Brian’s mother, he’s not the messiah — and he’s not going to singlehandedly wrench the NBN back on track. That’s not the role of a non-executive board director on the project — and it won’t be Hackett’s role either.

Hackett’s role, like other non-executive directors on NBN Co’s board, will primarily be one of helping to ensure strong governance of the company over the next few years. At NBN Co’s regular board meetings, he will constructively challenge and contribute to the company’s strategies in meeting its aims. He will help to hold NBN Co’s executive team to account for their performance. He will keep an eye on NBN Co’s finances and operations and also have a role in appointing or removing senior executives such as the new CEO the company is currently seeking to hire.

Perhaps most of all, Hackett, like all the directors on NBN Co’s board, will be responsible for interpreting key Government statements of policy such as the Statement of Expectations (PDF) which the Government recently issued to NBN Co, and translating that policy into concrete company strategy. As an example of this, one of the first projects which Hackett will no doubt take a small hand in will be the development of NBN Co’s Strategic Review due in three weeks — although he’s coming in a little late to influence the document too much.

So what can Hackett achieve in this position? I would like to suggest a few areas in which he might take an active interest.

Firstly, I would suggest that Hackett seek to form a sub-committee of NBN Co’s board to specifically look at the construction issue on an ongoing, probably weekly, basis. This specific issue — the actual deployment of NBN Co’s network infrastructure, especially its FTTP network rollout, is the main issue bedeviling the company at the moment and it’s the area which it desperately needs to focus on, irrespective of whether it eventually pursues a predominantly Fibre to the Premises or Fibre to the Node rollout. Under either scenario (or the more likely mix of both), construction will be the main issue, and NBN Co’s network rollout is suffering drastic problems due to a combination of factors such as the poor performance of its contractors and issues with asbestos in Telstra’s network.

Hackett doesn’t have a huge amount of experience with fibre network construction, but on NBN Co’s board, he has some of the most, alongside Patrick Flannigan, the company’s former head of construction who was appointed to NBN Co’s board alongside Hackett today. Also on that committee should sit Kerry Schott, who has a great of infrastructure experience as the long-time chief executive of Sydney Water. Unlike most of the other NBN board members, these three have actually built stuff.

A construction sub-committee of the NBN board could keep closer tabs on this issue than the whole board, communicating regularly with NBN Co’s new chief operating officer Greg Adcock directly and keeping Adcock and his team on a short leash. Former NBN Co board chair Siobhan McKenna started this process this year in the six months before the election; it needs to continue, and a dedicated board sub-committee is a good way to handle this urgent situation. This sub-committee should then report to the wider board.

Should NBN Co eventually hand off much of its construction work to Telstra, as many in the industry, including the writer of this article, believes it should, then the nature of that construction sub-committee would probably change markedly.

But until NBN Co’s negotiations with Telstra are nailed down — which will probably take six months — construction still needs to go ahead and be watched very closely by NBN Co’s board. The progress of those negotiations, I would add, should probably be overseen by another board sub-committee, likely including at the very least former Telstra executives Ziggy Switkowski and Justin Milne.

That major focus out of the way, other areas which Hackett should focus on should also play to the Internode founder’s strengths.

Hackett has been very vocally critical of the controversial decision by the Australian Competition and Consumer Decision to set a large number of Points of Interconnect for the NBN to link its network with the networks of retail ISPs, and it’s time that decision was revisited again. Hackett has extensive experience in dealing with the regulator from his Internode days.

As a sub-component of this, the ISP industry — and Hackett personallyhas also expressed significant concerns about the long-term viability of the Connectivity Virtual Circuit charge which NBN Co charges retail ISPs as one component part of its broader wholesale package. It’s definitely time this issue was looked at again, now that NBN Co has a significant bulk of end user customers connected to its network.

Other major issues for NBN Co which Hackett should be looking at include the future of non-NBN Co fibre networks such as the FTTP network Telstra built in South Brisbane, and the TransACT FTTP network in Canberra which NBN Co bought from iiNet in May this year. Other candidate networks to be part of NBN Co’s footprint include the patches of FTTP fibre in new estates located around Australia and owned by telcos like Telstra and Opticomm.

Most of this infrastructure is ultimately slated to be part of NBN Co’s infrastructure, but we’ve seen literally zero action in most of these areas over the past several years. I’d like to see Hackett find out what the hell NBN Co is planning, especially with relation to South Brisbane and TransACT in Canberra, where retail customers are crying out for competitive broadband options, and escalate these issues.

Another area where Hackett is strong relates to end user equipment, where the Internode founder has made a number of very public suggestions about ways that NBN Co could cut its costs and deliver a more functional network. I’d like to see Hackett get involved in this area with NBN Co.

Now, this seems like a big list. But let’s keep in mind that Hackett’s thinking in quite a few of these areas is already well-advanced. Both with Internode and at iiNet, the executive is already completely across many of the areas which NBN Co works in, and really just needs update briefings to get access to internal NBN Co information to better inform his decision-making. In all of these areas, Hackett will be ideally placed on NBN Co’s board to influence (not control) things for the better.

This list also contains a combination of both long-term and short-term issues. There is absolutely no doubt that Hackett could achieve some relatively quick wins with NBN Co’s strategy by tackling areas such as its PoI structure, its NTU gear and the way it deals with networks such as South Brisbane and TransACT in Canberra. A lot could be achieved in these areas in just six months of focus. In the long term, strong oversight of NBN Co’s construction activities would benefit everyone.

Finally, I’d like to mention one other area which Hackett probably shouldn’t be directly involved with, but which he should maintain a laser-like focus on to ensure accountability: NBN Co’s renewed deal with Telstra.

Hackett is pretty much the only member of NBN Co’s board who wouldn’t inherently look on a major company like Telstra with favour, or at least ambivalence. Virtually every other director has had some involvement with Telstra at some point, be it being directly employed by the company or, as in the case of Alison Lansley, working for Telstra’s long-term main law firm Mallesons.

NBN Co’s renewed contract with Telstra will be critical to the future success of the project, but there are many ways it could go catastrophically wrong. Hackett has spent much of the past two decades building a national broadband industry despite Telstra’s best efforts; often fighting the telco directly in court, in front of the ACCC, and in the retail market. He’s not best placed to maintain direct oversight of NBN Co’s relationship with Telstra (as former Telstra executives, Switkowski and Milne would have that role), but a dissenting voice and independent eye is very much needed with respect to this issue. In fact, it’s probably one of the main reasons Turnbull wanted Hackett on NBN Co’s board to begin with.

The obvious caveat to this whole article — and one I suspect many readers will raise — is that Hackett should be focused on trying to convince the Coalition, through making a case for it using NBN Co’s resources, that it should abandon its Fibre to the Node-based NBN policy and return to Labor’s FTTP strategy, perhaps through taking costs out of the deployment in the way Hackett has publicly suggested.

It’s obviously an angle Hackett will consider. However, I would encourage the executive, and readers as well, to remember that the Internode founder will likely have only a small amount of input into that large decision, at least in the short to medium term. The FTTN/FTTP mix will likely come out of a decision made by Turnbull as a result of NBN Co’s Strategic Review, due to be delivered in only a few short weeks. Hackett will be able to have only very limited impact on that review and on the FTTN/FTTP and even FTTB mix in the short-term. Meanwhile, there are other aspects of NBN Co’s network deployment and operations which are more important than rollout ideology. In the long-term, that avenue may open up. In the meantime, Hackett’s role is broadly to support the Coalition’s vision.

In general, I suspect that Simon Hackett will be a radically different board director at NBN Co than the previous directors the company had under Labor. Most of those executives were consummate professionals from outside the telco sector. They appear to have done a competent job on NBN Co’s board in general, but did not stop the project going off the rails.

I believe that Hackett specifically, and very likely Justin Milne and Patrick Flannigan as well, will take a much more activist approach. The trio has not been hired to sit on their asses and read monthly reports generated by NBN Co to reassure them that everything is OK. They have been hired for their specific skills and experience and will be required to use that background for NBN Co’s benefit. I expect to see Hackett, in particular, ramp up his engagement with NBN Co, especially informally and behind the scenes, over the next year or so as the project is reshaped by the Coalition.

Of course, all of these are just suggestions. Hackett is one of the most independent minds in Australia’s telecommunications sector and will, no doubt, find his feet on NBN Co’s board very quickly and get involved in the areas he can most make a difference or is just most interested in. History suggests that this will be a very good thing. Australia’s modern broadband scene is largely a creation of a handful of key players, Hackett, iiNet’s Michael Malone, TPG’s David Teoh and also Justin Milne among them. It will be fascinating to see what impact Hackett’s vision will have on this critical second phase of broadband delivery in our great nation.


  1. When Labour initially launched their NBN 2.0 I was excited for the tech, realistic in the time frame and very pessimistic for its actual execution. My guess was tio meet the time frame but go excessively over-budget. The near complete non-implementation was beyond my worst fears.

    With the Liberal plan I was less excited for the tech (but sitting on 4M sync rate ADSL2, FttN would still be a dream for me), but more realistic for its eventual implementation.

    With this news, this slightly optimistic realism is starting to graduate to potential joyous optimism.

    For most of my clients a stable 20M/5M service at an approximate $100 a month rate would be ideal for meeting their needs, speeds beyond that and we start to change the way people do business, opening up an entire world of opportunities.

    Please let us at least avoid worst case this time….

    • I’ve had very little optimism for the NBN in general for about a year now. When it became apparent that NBN Co’s projected rollout numbers were very little more than polite fictions and that the company’s contractor model was failing, I started to feel that it was only a matter of time until the model was dramatically shaken up by a Coalition Government.

      I would be happy to settle for either FTTN (with HFC continuing to exist) in the short-term, provided there was a long-term FTTP upgrade plan, or just FTTP. I’m also happy for the cable to be laid over powerlines everywhere around Australia. At this point what I primarily want to see happening is construction moving forward — by hook or by crook. I’m hoping that the combination of Adcock and Flannigan can deliver that — with some judicious doses of assistance from Hackett.

      • I’m hoping that Hackett simply acts as a BS detector, and nothing slips past him without him screaming his head off. His independence and outspokenness should hopefully mean than if (when!) things go wrong that should be corrected quickly.

        I don’t demand perfection, but accountability and correction will do more than blind faith.

        • Well this is pretty much the definition of a good non-executive director — “bullshit detector” :)

  2. With someone like Hacket on the board I highly suspect that although Turnbull will keep pushing FTTN for political purposes, it will be strangely absent in most places except large MDUs. Hacket has first hand experience with the interactions of water and copper! He also knows about the maintenance costs that would impose.

    • Hmmm. I don’t really agree with this. I think FTTN will be very widely used under the Coalition’s version of the NBN, Hackett or no ;)

  3. As last someone that has some idea what the real issues in broadband are, makes the board.
    It’s going to cost a bundle of money to complete the NBN as FTTH that’s a given and the Australian people broadly accept this.
    The reforms that are needed are:
    1) Cable only to the basement in MDU’s and provide VDSL routers , these are PRIVATE properties and should be required to fund their own cabling. Some sort of loan system could be established for MDU’s and Strata legislation modified to allow a majority vote for the installation of cable, with an annual vote procedure with no proxy’s.
    2) Cabling should only be funded to a Terminal Cable Port at a post near the entrance to the property like the water main and property owners required to pay for the work on their own premises perhaps funded by ISP’s. Two years allowed for the consumer to fund this before copper decommissioned.
    3) A single port termination device should be used, the logic of an all seeing and doing device is absurd. Consumers to buy and install their own routers, perhaps provided by ISP’s.
    4) Extra funding could be used to begin a rollout from the CBD’s of the capital cities and the surrounding densely populated areas to build up connected numbers to get quicker revenue growth. But sticking to the original plan general is much easier as the hard yards have already been done.

    FTTN is an idea dreamt up by the old copper companies, it’s an idea that’s 10 years old an is not the way a new network solution is built. A reconfiguration could take engineers 12 or more months, that would mean construction of FTTN may not begin until the first quarter of 2015 giving Turnbull 22 months (or 18 months to the election run up) to complete his Australia wide 25Mbs solution. It’s just not possible.

    Abbott should can his very unpopular parental leave scheme and use that funding to do a proper build of NBN the Australian people want.
    Aerial rollouts need to be avoided where ducts exist. This new network needs to be very hardy not a slapdash installation that will need ongoing cost to keep running.

    • Let me respond to these points one by one.

      1. Hmm perhaps, but the problem is that most of these properties’ owners probably won’t actually organise for the cable to be connected. Ever deal with strata committees or owners of MDUs? Very hard to get anything done at all. I think this needs to be largely organised by NBN Co.

      2. As with point 1.

      3. I agree — a single port termination device is more than enough.

      4. I’d like to see an ‘inside out’ rollout for the NBN, starting with the most populated areas and ending in least populated, but with the caveat that there should also be provisions for dealing with areas that don’t have any decent broadband right now.

      “FTTN is an idea dreamt up by the old copper companies, it’s an idea that’s 10 years old an is not the way a new network solution is built.”

      And yet it’s working very well in the UK — they are certainly doing much better than Australia right now when it comes to broadband.


      “Aerial rollouts need to be avoided where ducts exist. This new network needs to be very hardy not a slapdash installation that will need ongoing cost to keep running.”

      I don’t necessarily agree, see my thoughts on this here:


  4. Let me see if I got this right. Ziggy was in charge of Telstra when it was determined it had some 10 years of “life” left before it started to die. Ziggy was in charge of Telstra when thousands of repair staff got laid off, made redundant, not replaced and the network degraded rapidly due to reduced number of techs to fix existing and new faults. Ziggy was in charge of Telstra when little johnnie didn’t think $4,000,000,000 profit per year was enough so he (little j) floated Telstra 1. Ziggy left a dying Telstra and popped up later spruking Nuclear power as a clean energy for little johnnie and his election. Now Ziggy (who is without a doubt is a LNP lacky mouthpiece) tells us the dying Telstra he helped to try and kill is now robust and the decrepit copper network will handle high speed 25mbps(FTTN) broadband. HFC and Abbott’s pipedream wireless solution are, unlike FTTH (or P if you prefer), SHARED media. The more users, the less your pipe share, ergo, SLOWER speeds. Why don’t we do something right for once and finish running fibre to the home. It won’t need to be done again on all our lifetimes and by 2030 we may even have 100gbps connections to the home. Business will certainly like it especially the UP speed. The present 1mbps up speed is a joke; hardly sufficient for a video Skype call with reasonable resolution.
    What now happens to the new housing developments (like South Morang, Victoria) that had fibre rolled out as part of the development stage. Are they going to get the Node Dalek stuck in their streets and have new copper run alongside their already laid fibre so they too can partake in the enjoyment of copper for the last mile. As an aside, I have ADSL2+ and with the LNPs Fraudband, my connection speeds may actually become slower due to my location.
    Finally, can we please get rid of that political whore Switkowski and the tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer funded fees he is collecting for regurgitating the present government’s lies and BS.
    You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time but this NBN debacle that Ziggy and his political puppet string pullers are running, are not fooling anyone with any IT knowledge any of the time.

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