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Lies, damned lies, and NBN rollout statistics

Relying on the NBN Co corporate plan to learn about the actual NBN rollout is like using Life of Pi as a manual for tiger care: It may seem like it has all the answers at first, but if you're not ready to keep an open mind you're going to get eaten alive.

Pundits on both side of the debate were trying to keep open minds with the release of the latest National Broadband Network (NBN) rollout figures, which show that the project is definitely well behind NBN Co's earlier estimations of where it would be.

LifeofPi
You can't waste time counting the fish when you've got bigger problems to deal with. Image: 20th Century Fox

It was like a double Christmas for the opposition, which spent the day revelling in Labor's farcical leadership debacle and, as a stocking stuffer, got the chance to use the new NBN Co figures to put the boot into Labor's leadership as it beat a hasty retreat out the doors after the last day of the parliamentary session until the mid-May Budget.

That budget is sure to provide lots of fodder for the Coalition's arguments against Labor's NBN plans — as if it needed more. Yet, as Malcolm Turnbull savours his by-default win and we all begin to understand exactly why Mike Quigley took the extraordinary step of encouraging a debate about NBN technology options, it's worth asking why the deadlines are slipping so much.

Is it, as Turnbull would have us believe, a disaster? Pretty much, yes. But is it a vindication of everything he has been saying is wrong with Labor? Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

It has always been important to separate Labor's management — which certainly did live up to Turnbull's expectations with the shambolic events of March 21 — from the technical ability of NBN Co to get this massively difficult job done.

The NBN Co Corporate Plan ... has always been a best-case scenario built on malleable assumptions about changing conditions that are out of NBN Co's sphere of control.

Thanks to the indelibly political nature of the project, it has been impossible to separate the two. Yet, any honest appraisal of the embarrassing rollout figures landed this week must, I would posit, focus not on Labor Party politics, but on whether NBN Co is, despite all assurances to the contrary, in fact in the midst of the Sisyphean task of pushing a sleeping tiger up a steep hill; no matter how careful you are, it could wake at any moment and it'll be game over.

In this particular case, it seems that NBN Co's biggest weakness is not its internal planning capabilities — which have proceeded with what the industry largely agrees are strong and robust processes — but its reliance on an over-optimistic private sector to deliver a vision that was built around best-case scenarios and has been progressively weakened to much political hullabaloo as reality kicks in.

As Northern Territory (NT) contractor Syntheo so painfully confirmed earlier in the week, the private sector is struggling to meet its own targets — set, as they were, based on a competitive bid to meet NBN Co's own top-down mandate for rapid delivery.

Either something has gone horribly wrong with Syntheo's staffing policies — lower-than-market rates, for example, or an inadequate distribution of appropriately skilled staff — or the company was being dishonest with itself and NBN Co about what it could actually deliver. This, I submit, is neither the fault of Labor nor NBN Co — but of the private market whose capabilities the Coalition trusts so implicitly to improve telecommunications on its own.

When the NBN was envisaged, a well-intentioned Labor crowed about its potential for job creation — assuming, as was its wont, that there would be no trouble bringing on labourers, training them, and getting them to work with shared enthusiasm to meet NBN Co's targets. Labor, in short, assumed that those contractors shared its eagerness to work their guts out to fibre the nation.

The truth hits hard. Reality bites — and Syntheo, not unlike the other NBN Co contractors in other geographies, is struggling to attract enough skilled or even unskilled staff to deliver the rollout. By all accounts, the subcontractors are all but pulling buskers off the street, putting fibre-optic splicing equipment in their hands, and telling them to whistle while they work in some of the hottest, most remote parts of the country.

We must ask: How much slack are we prepared to give Labor's NBN before we pull the plug?

Workers, it turns out, have other considerations, such as feeding their families or even knowing that the NBN-generated contracts will be there long enough to justify ignoring the flood of lucrative mining-industry jobs currently on offer. Like the boat-bound tiger in Life of Pi — whose main interest is not on working out a long-term and mutually beneficial partnership for survival, but in enjoying a long evening chewing on the femur of a lanky Indian boy — those workers just want what they want. In this case, good money and job stability, Labor ideology be damned.

Even with NBN Co assuming control of what was Syntheo's rollout, it mostly faces the same obstacles: Without revising salaries and job security upwards, it may struggle to secure enough staff to do much better than the contractor it has ejected. And, as I noted in an earlier column asking whether Australia would need to import masses of foreign workers to get the job done, alternative options are complex and limited .

This is the reality of the NBN, which is not being built in a vacuum. It's also the reason why the NBN Co Corporate Plan is hardly a real measure of what we can expect for the NBN. That document has always been a best-case scenario built on malleable assumptions about changing conditions that are out of NBN Co's sphere of control.

Our friend Piscine could do nothing about the strength or direction of the ocean currents pushing his craft across the Pacific. All he could do was to keep adapting his survival skills, and hope that he reached dry land before the tiger's patience ran out.

NBN Co is in the same boat when it comes to meeting its objectives. Despite its intrinsic vagaries, the company's corporate plan has been used by countless critics to hammer NBN Co on the specifics of a rollout that was, from the get go, always going to be subject to unpredictable delays and interruptions. These events happen to everybody, and it's not exactly correct to dismiss NBN or Labor as incompetent just because they set optimistic targets that weren't met by an equally optimistic private sector.

Turnbull, of course, has derived great satisfaction from holding NBN Co accountable to its projections: "I don't have any confidence that with the current approach and the current management that they are capable of completing it by 2021," he told 2UE the day after Labor's Black Thursday.

Unless Turnbull can articulate a viable strategy for building up the skills that his party is going to need for a project it has yet to describe in detail, it's unlikely that it will have any more luck delivering on its NBN vision than Labor has.

The 2021 deadline is indeed looking shaky, unless things can pick up significantly — and soon. Yet, if the fundamentals are in place, we need to ask: Isn't it premature to drop the axe just because our largest-ever infrastructure project is finding it harder to get its flight wings than Labor had hoped?

More importantly, we must ask: How much slack are we prepared to give Labor's NBN before we pull the plug? It's way too early to give up on such a massive project, but there should be a point when the government of the day looks at the progress to date and asks itself tough questions about just how the NBN can be completed. I would suggest that this time is somewhere around the end of 2016, when whichever government is elected in September has had three years to bring the NBN up to speed in its own way.

Actually, if Turnbull's numbers are correct — and they will not be — he will have finished the fibre-to-the-node (FttN) rollout by then. But suppose, just a little bit, that he hasn't anticipated all obstacles. His alternative NBN plan is also based on a heck of a lot of civil works, and will also be reliant on the realities of the same labour market in which Syntheo, NBN Co, and the other contractors are playing.

Unless Turnbull can articulate a viable strategy for building up the skills that his party is going to need for a project it has yet to describe in detail, it's unlikely that it will have any more luck delivering on its NBN vision than Labor has. And, if that's the case — and the truth is that we simply do not have enough resources to modernise our own telecommunications infrastructure — the only loser in the NBN battle will be Australia.

What do you think? Is Labor too far down the slippery slope, or is this just a momentary hiccup? And does the Coalition need to back its alternative plan with a detailed strategy for finding and engaging enough staff to meet its own ambitious targets?

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