news NBN Co executive chairman Ziggy Switkowski has been forced to retract a statement he made earlier this month regarding the company’s network rollout contracts in Tasmania, admitting yesterday that the contracts did specify Labor’s preferred Fibre to the Premises network model was to be used in the state.
Many Tasmanians believe the Coalition, specifically Malcolm Turnbull, committed the Coalition’s Broadband Network rollout (CBN) in the state to a full FTTP deployment during last year’s Federal Election campaign. Turnbull never explicitly made such a promise; stating only that a Coalition Government would honour construction contracts signed by NBN Co. Some, including the media and some Liberal politicians, took this statement to mean that the Coalition would commit to a full rollout of Fibre to the Premises broadband in the state.
As the issue became a hot topic in the Tasmanian election, with both Tasmanian Liberal Leader Will Hodgman and incumbent Labor Premier Lara Giddings pleading with Turnbull to ensure the state received a full FTTP rollout, and not a partial Fibre to the Node or to the Basement rollout, Switkowski gave a high-profile radio interview with the ABC in Tasmania several weeks ago.
At the time, Switkowski told the ABC that NBN Co’s contracts with its construction partners in the state — principally Visionstream — never stipulated a Fibre to the Premises model would be used. However, in a hearing held by the Senate Select Committee into the National Broadband Network this week, Switkowski was forced to change his tune on the issue, acknowledging that the contracts did, in fact, stipulate a FTTP model.
“I want to talk about Tasmania for a second,” former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy told Switkowski. “You went on radio and said that the contracts did not specify fibre to the premises. I want to be clear about that. My understanding is that the contractors announced to the stock exchange that they were hired to build fibre to the premises. So I am confused about whether you have read the contracts or the companies misled the stock exchange.”
“My language needed to be more precise,” said Switkowski. “When the contract was composed, the only technology that was contemplated was fibre to the premises. There was no alternative being considered.”
“But the contract is written, as all these contracts are to provide the flexibility to the service partner and to NBN Co to vary any number of dimensions. There is history that we have done that in many cases. My interpretation of the contract, which has been confirmed, is that, while initially being a contract to deliver fibre to the premises, the contract provided room to change technologies.”
Conroy pointed out that the contract with Visionstream specified, for instance, the fibre lengths involved in the rollout, “because by definition you need to hire them to lay sufficient length of fibre to each home”. “I presume you would have purchased enough fibre to reach the homes, given it was a purely fibre-to-the-home rollout,” he said.
Newly appointed NBN Co chief operating officer Greg Adcock responded that the contract was structured around population, but that no specific amounts of fibre had been detailed. “The supply chain works on volume rolling forward on forecasts. There were no specific amounts; there were just projection volumes,” he said.
The revelations appear set to re-open the issue ahead of Tasmania’s state election scheduled to be held tomorrow.
Tasmanian Liberal Leader Will Hodgman made the extraordinary admission in mid-February that the Federal Coalition’s unpopular broadband policy could cost the party the election. However, at this stage the Liberal Party is expected to win the election comfortably.
Labor Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings has accused the Coalition Federal Government of having “conned the Tasmanian public” with respect to its plans for the Coalition’s Broadband Network project in the state, having failed to commit to a full Fibre to the Premises rollout despite the State Government’s willingness to work with Canberra on the issue.
Labor senator for Tasmania Anne Urquhart last week introduced a Bill into Federal Parliament that would, if passed, require NBN Co to continue its fibre-to-the-premises rollout in Tasmania.
The Tasmanian population is highly aware of broadband as an issue and has consistently raised its voice on the broadband topic as a unified group far louder than other states have. Broadband was also a critical issue in the state during the 2010 Federal Election. Tasmania has historically suffered from very poor levels of high-speed broadband compared with mainland areas, partially due to an unwillingness by rival telcos to invest because of high backhaul prices charged by Telstra across Bass Strait.
After the 2010 Federal Election, former Howard-era Minister Peter Reith produced a report on the Coalition’s election loss. The majority of the report did not mention broadband, but one section quotes extensively from a similar report produced last year by Sydney academic Julian Leeser into the Tasmanian leg of the election, which has been reported in brief.
“The failure to properly explain the Liberal Party’s broadband policy and the Labor Party’s effective scare campaign was a major cause of the party’s failure to win seats in Tasmania,” the report stated. “This was the nearly universal review of people making submissions to the review and is borne out by research undertaken by the Liberal Party. In the view of many, the party’s policy amounted to a threat to come into people’s homes and rip the Internet out of the wall.”
Image credit: Parliamentary Broadcasting