news Tasmania’s peak industry body of the information, communications and technology sector, TasICT, has published a strongly worded submission to the Federal Government slamming both sides of politics for the “shambolic” and “farcical” progress of NBN Co’s network rollout in the state, stating that the project has become a “political tool”.
When Labor first announced its National Broadband Network project in April 2009, Tasmania took pride of place in the announcement. The state’s existing poor broadband infrastructure compared with the rest of Australia meant that the then-Rudd Labor administration allocated Tasmania priority in the planned NBN fibre rollout, with the state to host pilot programs for the wider national NBN fibre rollout and a separate division of NBN Co, NBN Tasmania, established to service it.
However, little progress has been made in the state since that time due to a combination of NBN Co’s poor handling of its prime construction contractor in the state, as well as asbestos issues in Telstra’s infrastructure and a constant back and forth between various sides of politics about how the Tasmanian rollout should continue.
Many Tasmanians believe the Coalition, specifically Malcom Turnbull, committed the Coalition’s modified Broadband Network rollout (CBN) in the state to a full Fibre to the Premises deployment during last year’s Federal Election, as was originally planned under Labor. However, in fact, Turnbull never explicitly made such a promise; stating only that a Coalition Government would honour construction contracts signed by NBN Co. Some Tasmanians took this statement to mean that the Coalition would commit to a full rollout of Fibre to the Premises broadband in the state.
Subsequently, NBN Co has confirmed that part of Tasmania will be served by the technically inferior Fibre to the Node technology preferred by the Coalition. In the recent Tasmanian election, both sides of politics called for Turnbull to commit to a full FTTP rollout in the state. The Minister eventually confirmed new trials of overhead fibre would be undertaken to confirm the viability of the model.
One of the most vocal voices regarding the project in Tasmania has been TasICT, the state’s peak body for the local ICT sector.
In a submission to the Federal Parliament (PDF) regarding the National Broadband Network Companies Amendment (Tasmania) Bill 2014 (legislation established by Labor which would require a full FTTP rollout in the state, but which has no chance of being enacted), the organisation harshly criticised both sides of politics for their mismanagement of the broadband rollout in Tasmania.
“By June 2013 the project was plagued by disputes between NBN Co, Visionstream and its subcontractors as well as concerns over asbestos risks during remediation work,” the group wrote. “These issues were never dealt with by the Government of the day. In fact, they were completely ignored and the rollout had almost stopped by September 2013.”
“It was hoped these issues would be addressed by a new government and the rollout could get back on track. To date, that has not happened. Less than 4,000 new premises have been passed since Visionstream announced it had reached agreement to ‘accelerate’ the rollout in December 2013. TASICT believes the Tasmanian project has no realistic chance of being completed by the end of 2015, as previously promised. The first-mover NBN advantage once trumpeted as an economic saviour for Tasmania, is gone.”
TasICT wrote that the most immediate issue facing the Tasmanian rollout was not the issue of which technology — FTTP or FTTN — would be used, but “what can be done to get the project moving at a reasonable rate”, with only a few thousand premises having received NBN Co’s infrastructure since the company was formed in April 2009. “At the current rate of progress it will take another 14 years to complete the remainder of the 190,000 premises currently contracted to receive FTTP NBN,” the group’s submission states.
A secondary issue is the poor ability which NBN Co has to actually connect customers, even if the company’s broadband infrastructure runs past their premises.
“It is estimated that up to 50% of appointments are being missed by NBN contractors,” wrote TasICT. “There is anecdotal evidence that some of these appointments are being ignored because contractors arrive at the appointment, identify a difficult or time- consuming job and make an assessment it is not worth the rate being offered.”
This situation had resulted in “significant re-work” for retail service providers, as they were forced to restart the connection process after failed attempts, and a high risk that customers would blame their retail service provider for missed appointment and long wait times between ordering and connecting to NBN Co’s infrastructure. In turn, this had led to uncertainty over future rollout locations and times, as well as lower than expected take-up rates of NBN Co’s infrastructure.
In general, TasICT noted that it was disappointed to note that the NBN project had been “used as a political tool by all major political parties at a state and federal level”. “It has been frustrating to see the real issues skimmed over or ignored, as evidenced by the Bill being assessed by this Senate Committee,” the group wrote.
”The NBN rollout and connection process in Tasmania has been so shambolic and failed so abysmally to meet its targets that the question about what NBN technology Tasmania will get has become less relevant. Tasmanians now wonder if they will ever get the NBN. Business has lost enthusiasm for the project and RSPs have lost confidence in the product they want to provide. Tasmania, already dealing with an inadequate communications infrastructure, faces lengthy delays to ever see the project completed.”
”A debate about what policy would see the greatest number of new connections to NBN infrastructure in the shortest period of time would be more relevant than one about proposed changes to the NBN technology mix. TASICT implores Inquiry members to take this submission seriously and look to address the issues raised in relation to the lack of rollout progress and farcical connection process.”
”Without urgent political intervention, the project will continue to fail Tasmania.”
I wrote a detailed analysis of the Tasmanian situation a couple of months ago. The conclusions I came to are very similar to those evinced by TasICT in the group’s submission. I wrote:
“The ongoing stoush over how the Coalition’s Broadband Network should be deployed in Tasmania shows Australia’s broadband tangle at its worst: Construction contractors who don’t deliver, overly optimistic promises and estimates, and politicians playing petty power games with a highly important national infrastructure project. No matter which way you look at it, it’s a shocking mess.
The core issue in Tasmania right now is not, in fact, what style of broadband rollout the state will receive from NBN Co over the next few years. In fact, the core issue right now is how any kind of rollout will actually be delivered — who will do it, and how.”
And as I wrote more than 12 months ago, the whole project is really in fantasyland right now:
“The NBN is still a wonderful dream; wonderful enough that anyone from overseas who visits Australia tends to praise it as a fantastic undertaking that they wish their own government had undertaken.
But let’s be real about this: For the foreseeable future, the NBN is going to remain just that — a dream. The NBN is not coming to your house or business any time soon, and in the next five or so years Australia can expect the current disgraceful level of political infighting about the project and delays in its rollout to continue. This dreadful situation is not going away any time soon, and neither are the problems with your broadband connection. So get used to the dropouts.
The NBN has always been a fantastic dream. But all dreams must end as we wake to grisly reality. This project has been mismanaged by Labor, and is about to be screwed over wholesale by the Coalition. At this stage, the suggestion by then-Telstra chief executive Sol Trujillo back in 2005 that the Government pay Telstra a few billion to deploy FTTN itself (and lock out competitors along the way) is looking more and more like it would have been a winner, comparatively. We may not have had competition in the telco landscape, and we may not have had fibre to the home. But at least we would have had something.”
It’s tragic, but then that’s Australian politics right now: A tragic mess of quite epic proportions.