It's two years now since Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy faced Australia to announce they were going to embark on their ambitious fibre-anywhere plan. And it has been a year since I marked the first anniversary of that date, suggesting early progress was promising.
Man, was I an optimist. While I acknowledged ongoing challenges for Stephen Conroy, who would have guessed then that a year later we would find him reporting to a new Prime Minister?
Nor would I have guessed that we would have progressed another year to find NBN Co suspending negotiations with 14 tenders and losing its head of construction under suspicious circumstances; there are worrying parallels to the last time the government cancelled an NBN contract, after booting Telstra out of its procurement processes and then booting all rationality out of it, into the bargain.
I did, for those who are keeping score, anticipate extensive problems as Labor tried to push its legislation through. Opposition Senators and MPs certainly rose to the challenge, obstructing the NBN at every turn and even complaining extensively as recently as last week about last-minute amendments — made to address many of their concerns about the NBN, no less — and then wasting half a day stalling the process by complaining how little time had been given to discuss them. Indeed, whatever ideological gains the Coalition has made over the past year in fighting the NBN are less the result of its haphazard, reactionary, FUD-driven and, frankly, often embarrassing smear campaign than of Labor's effort to do anything — anything — to satisfy the interests of the many stakeholders in the NBN and just get on with it.
ISPs that had been agitating for the separation of Telstra for a decade finally got what they were asking for, and promptly attacked NBN Co for threatening their own businesses with a points of interconnect (POI) model that they said would strand their fibre investments and increase their costs connecting to the NBN. NBN Co relented, waited for ACCC guidance and delivered an alternative model with plenty of POIs — which ended up embroiling Conroy in a tit-for-tat battle with Internode (the company that hates the POI model with a vengeance). Just goes to show: you can't please everybody, all the time.
Facing a continuous barrage of same old, same old ignorant questions about wireless networks from a chronically uneducated public and politically-minded Senators, Conroy and NBN CEO Mike Quigley have struggled to gain enough ideological and logistical traction to actually get on with the job of fixing our ailing national telecommunications infrastructure.
Facing a continuous barrage of same old, same old ignorant questions about wireless networks from a chronically uneducated public and politically-minded Senators, Conroy and NBN CEO Mike Quigley have struggled to gain enough ideological and logistical traction to actually get on with the job of fixing our ailing national telecommunications infrastructure. Election-eve headlines screaming about the cost of the NBN to householders are hard to ignore — even if they're partisan, insincere and deceptive. Conroy seems to spend most of his public time defending the NBN against critics fuelled by ignorance and blind hatred of what they see as a barely-hanging-on minority government with a sketchy track record on consistency and delivery. When he tries to reach out to the masses by engaging "shock jocks" like 2UE Afternoons host Mike Smith, he comes off as autocratic and foolish.
No, Labor just can't win when it comes to explaining the reasons for the NBN — even though these reasons are glaringly obvious to anybody actually working in the industry. But with estimates hearing after hearing focusing on the same ridiculous questions that make even Conroy look like a technological genius, it's a wonder Mike Quigley hasn't thrown up his hands in disgust and checked into Sol Trujillo's guest villa for some margarita-fuelled reminiscing. Quigley, you will recall, didn't actually need this job and only took it for the technological challenge — and his belief that he could make a real difference.
This, then, is what's wrong with the NBN — and the reason why I included both a full-stop and a question mark in the headline above. Two years on, this ambitious, promising and more-or-less realistic project has been subject to so much partisan, politically-driven, fact-ignoring, FUD-fuelled, back-stabbing "shock-and-awe" duplicity that its purpose has been obstructed and muddied absolutely beyond belief. Yet, caught in its own evolution and desire to please so many competing interests, Conroy and NBN Co have been so buffeted by the winds of opposition that they've failed to steer a straight course for the project. The biggest cost of the NBN, as one reader noted recently, is the NBN itself.
Oh — and the fact that Australia is a huge country. Labor could have kept the cost of the NBN much lower by focusing it on current underserviced premises in rural and regional areas, and scaling back the NBN remains one way of pushing it through faster. But in our fiercely egalitarian society, this would have been characterised by opponents as a half-solution that also guarantees financial non-viability. And it would have been.
The worst part is that Labor's NBN isn't even the best model for the NBN. That honour goes to the fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) roll-out, which would have slashed costs by capitalising on what infrastructure is in the ground and weaning itself from Telstra's anaemic exchange network. It would have made the most sense to lay a comprehensive FTTN network, service everyone with VDSL running the length of their streets and then fill in fibre last-mile connections as budgets and interest allowed. Yet FTTN was never going to happen, since it implicitly relied on getting unfettered access to Telstra's local-loop connections — and the company made it very clear, time and again, that that was as likely as Sol Trujillo putting on a pink tutu and doing plies through Federation Square.
So we ended up with the current NBN, which is a beautiful but expensive, complex and risk-fraught venture. For all of our healthy scepticism, we should be happy we have a government that is something so fundamentally positive and valuable for our country. Few governments in the world would have the guts to take on the utterly insane proposition of rebuilding a nationwide customer access network from the ground up, then wrapping it in enough protections that it could become a viable — and, perhaps, one day a commercial — proposition. The government is well-aware that the NBN is a hugely difficult task that is being made more difficult by constant attacks from vested interests. But it is the only way to free our country's telecommunications environment from Telstra's iron fist, and position us all for the future rather than being limited by the political and technical compromises of the past.
Yet for each visionary step forward it has taken (Telstra's submission, while still hanging on David Thodey's whim, is a significant one), scope creep and the sheer bulk of the NBN's groaning, heaving, controversial weight has left an impatient populace baying for blood. The NBN is like the calm, well-meaning beast of Disney's Beauty and the Beast — wanting nothing more than to do beautiful things for his Belle country, but vilified and hunted by a bloodthirsty mob that's whipped into a frenzy by a fear mongering poseur who wants nothing but to get that Belle country for himself at all costs. Sure, he lives in a huge and expensive castle, but he's all about good intentions and I bet he'd be a great hit with the kids at the local fair.
The worst part is that Labor's NBN isn't even the best model for the NBN ... Yet Labor had no option but to take on the utterly insane proposition of rebuilding the customer access network from the ground up, then wrapping it in enough protections that it could become a viable — and, perhaps, one day a commercial — proposition.
Frankly, one would have hoped that the NBN would be in better shape going into its third year. With unions baying for Conroy's blood over the cancelled contract, the promise of punitive settlements with tender bidders that have spent millions preparing bids in good faith, a shaky hold on government that's been destabilised by Gillard's carbon tax and Rudd's recent suggestions of her duplicity and an Opposition that continues to mask its fundamental Luddism behind cries of fiscal prudence, the NBN has more than enough to deal with.
And then, of course, there's actually building the damn thing.
Given the momentum behind it, I'd suggest that it's too early to call the NBN dead in the water as much as chronically delayed — by a stubborn parliament, a quietly stonewalling Telstra, a workforce of subcontractors that are genuinely and reasonably concerned about apportionment of risk and an industry that can't seem to decide whether it's happy or unhappy about what the NBN has become. But the foundations are there assuming Labor can navigate all this, avoid an election and still put a clear NBN plan into place, things should be looking up by next year — unless the forces of inertia succeed in dragging out this whole painful, desperate opposition to progress until we're staring down another election.
The NBN's second birthday isn't the only milestone we've reached today; by my count, this is my 200th Full Duplex column. That constitutes a novel's worth of words, and I thank the many loyal readers who have come back and participated in the many interesting discussions we've had here. I'll be continuing to follow the NBN and the rest of the telecoms industry as I have been doing — but if you have any other requests or suggestions I'd love to hear from you, either via email to fullduplex [at] braue.com, or via Twitter at @zyzzyvamedia.