It's understandable that the government would want to show off its achievements for the National Broadband Network (NBN), no matter how minor, but going over the top could risk making people more cynical about the $35.9 billion project.
A report in The Australian today suggests that NBN Co is close to signing a deal with Thiess-Siemens joint venture Silcar for construction at the second release sites; however, the article said that the revelation of that deal is going to be held off until the government announces the finalisation of the $11 billion deal with Telstra, expected in mid-June.
It wouldn't surprise me if the government wanted to announce all of its good news in an announcement extravaganza. It seems to fit the government's pattern of doing everything in an exaggerated "this is a nation-building project" fashion.
Last Wednesday, we had Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, Independent MP Tony Windsor and NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley all on hand at the Presbyterian Ladies College in Armidale to officially launch NBN services on the mainland. The big yellow-ish button was pushed, and an animation of fibre exploding across the regional town played on the screen.
The only problem was that the service was still on a trial basis, with only seven customers from four retail service providers currently connected to test the network, at no cost to the customer.
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy was terribly offended when publications pointed out that only seven customers were using the "turned on" service in Armidale. He's right that there will be many more customers to come; there's no denying that launching in Armidale is a big deal — close to 90 per cent of the owners of the 2900 premises are passed by the fibre, and the University of New England has opted to have the fibre connected to its premises. I wouldn't be surprised if we see hundreds — if not thousands — of Armidale customers jumping onboard for services in September when commercial services actually come online.
But don't get upset at publications telling the truth. Why make a big "Armidale is live" announcement when we could have heard what was really happening — that is, that services were being tested on the newly completed portion of the network?
I can accept that in the face of unrelenting criticism from the opposition, the government would want to get some runs on the board for the NBN. But that's the difficulty with a 10-year massive infrastructure project — the big milestones are few and far between, and don't generally fall in the first few years. So to prematurely pat yourselves on the back for just seven trial customers is just inviting people to be cynical.
The hooplah, singing school children and giant animations at the event just reminded me exactly of the kind of thing that former Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner warned of in his new book Sideshow: the government needing to look like it's doing something, announcing first and getting the work done later.
There are plenty of reasons that the government and NBN Co should be proud in embarking on a massive infrastructure project — and they have achieved so much to date — but give us the full story. We promise we can take it.