Asbestos, contractor fiascos prove NBN's worst enemy lies within

Asbestos, contractor fiascos prove NBN's worst enemy lies within

Summary: Forget fibre to the premises vs. fibre to the node; the growing range of problems with Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) confirms the biggest battle awaiting the presumptive Coalition government will be bringing contractors in line.

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The knee-jerk politicisation and media-fuelled overreaction to Telstra's asbestos problems over the past week — which went from the sublime to the ridiculous as Malcolm Turnbull attempted to pin the blame on his political rivals rather than the Coalition — are perhaps most noteworthy for the many questions they raise about the National Broadband Network's (NBN) future viability, no matter what party wins the September 14 Australian election.

Telstra's recently imposed stop-work will make it all but impossible for NBN Co to meet even the severely reduced June targets it released in March, which looked achievable for a few days there. Instead, the Coalition will inherit a project riddled with all the problems that it has been wishing into existence for the past three years — and it's going to take a bipartisan approach, backed with a big stick, to fix them.

House stumps eaten by termites: CC BY-SA 3.0 by Lady Alys (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:House_stumps_eaten_by_termites.jpg)
Like termites attacking house stumps, project-management rot is testing the foundations of the NBN.
(Image: CC BY-SA 3.0, Lady Alys)

As has become clear with the utter failure of Syntheo in the Northern Territory, the ongoing problems scoping and executing on NBN Co's LTE network, and now the revelations that Telstra-managed subcontractors are apparently routinely ignoring basic health and safety regulations, the biggest problem with Labor's NBN is not that Labor is building it, or that it's built around fibre to the premises (FttP) versus fibre to the node (FttN).

The NBN's biggest problem is that it is being entrusted to an opportunistic private sector that simply does not care whether it's actually built or not.

Labor talks, correctly, of the NBN as everyone-do-their-part nation building, but the private sector seems to be treating it as just another opportunity to dip into the government's cash-lined pockets, with minimal protections and proper performance only when prodded. I'm reminded of Pink Floyd's song Have a Cigar: "Come in here dear boy, have a cigar/You're gonna go far ... And did we tell you the name of the game, boy?/We call it riding the gravy train."

Sure, the company has taken a swift and appropriate response — but if you consider that one of CEO David Thodey's first actions was to reassure shareholders that any asbestos-related liabilities would not be material (despite calls for it to set up an asbestos compensation fund), it's obvious where the company's priorities lie.

Indeed, every time there's an NBN hiccup, Thodey's first instinct is to reassure shareholders that everything is fine. Never mind that the company is already paying millions for asbestos compensation. His optimistic and repeated denials are beginning to sound more and more like Malcolm Turnbull's strangely confident NBN optimism.

The NBN's biggest problem is that it is being entrusted to an opportunistic private sector that simply does not care whether it's actually built or not.

The fact remains that even the Coalition's alternative plan will need to be built by the likes of Syntheo, which committed to rolling out the NBN across the Northern Territory without apparently checking its payroll to see if it actually had anybody to do the work. Oops. Secure the money first, then worry about the details later.

Then there's the growing tide of discontent around suggestions that NBN Co subcontractors are gouging the company by stockpiling profits while they pay below-market rates, which became necessary when they submitted unrealistically low bids to secure work they simply lack the resources to complete.

Unions are right to be questioning these contractors' priorities — and this all should have been dealt with long ago. For all of its good underlying intentions, the NBN has come off like a theatre production, where actors are reading their lines for the first time backstage, even as the audience members are already finding their seats.

Indeed, there is madness in Labor's NBN method, and comparisons with Labor's "pink batts" initiative are apt. Once again, the government has committed money in good faith, and been let down by contractors who care so little about doing good work that they apparently failed to implement even basic training or worker protections.

There is madness in Labor's NBN method, and comparisons with Labor's 'pink batts' initiative are apt. Once again, the government has committed money in good faith and been let down by contractors who failed to implement even basic training or worker protections.

This isn't how you build a nation; it's how you bankrupt one, both financially and spiritually. And that's why, when issues such as the presence of asbestos are diverted into political stoushes, and the name of Bernie Banton is flung around parliament like string beans in a school-cafeteria food fight, observers of the NBN effort can't help but feel twinges of remorse that what should be a bipartisan effort has all been this difficult and, as we near a game-changing election, unfruitful.

When the Coalition takes power, it's going to have to make a commitment to move away from its mind-numbing negativity about Labor, and to take a more productive tack that includes extracting real and predictable outcomes from the contractors in the market.

After all, Turnbull's plan also relies on the same regional LTE wireless that is now causing problems for Labor. Building the network to budget limitations will require Turnbull to wield the whip hand on trough-swilling civil contractors, while tighter constraints on NBN Co will force it to get the same contractors to complete a substantially different project on the smell of an oily rag.

Strong-arming the private sector has never been a core strength for the political right, but that may be what it's going to take to get this broadband upgrade done one way or another. Forget FttP vs FttN: If this government, or the next, can't get the industry to take the NBN seriously, not even our grandchildren will see its benefits.

What do you think? Are these contractor dramas really Labor's fault? Or will the Coalition government need to learn how to get tough on big business to deliver its promised outcomes?

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Government AU, Project Management, Next Generation Networks

About

Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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Talkback

55 comments
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  • So the problem isn't poor oversight?

    Nor little planning, difficulty of the task, spin rather than accountability, incompetence of key members of the govt. But an "opportunistic private sector";-)

    "As has become clear with the utter failure of Syntheo in the Northern Territory; the ongoing problems scoping and executing on NBN Co’s LTE network; and now, the revelations that Telstra-managed subcontractors are apparently routinely ignoring basic health and safety regulations..."

    All issues raise here, dismissed by the fanboys. Good luck David.

    Oh and not just Telstra (also raised):
    "THE national broadband network (NBN) builder will pull its contractors off asbestos-contaminated infrastructure projects in favour of specialist asbestos removal firms.

    Telstra owns the pits and ducts being used to roll out the NBN and is responsible for their remediation, but NBN Co contractors are directly involved in construction at a number of sites Australia-wide.
    "
    http://m.theaustralian.com.au/business/in-depth/nbn-co-to-pull-contractors-from-asbestos-contaminated-sites/story-e6frgaif-1226660487411

    Obvious to anyone with a clue. Lets now hear again from those without (RS -pink batt boy, HC, AA, Daren,etc)...
    Richard Flude
    • While we are on the subject.

      "the biggest problem with Labor’s NBN is not that Labor is building it, or that it’s built around FttP versus FttN.

      The NBN’s biggest problem is that it is being entrusted to an opportunistic private sector that simply does not care whether it’s actually built or not. "

      In case you hadn't noticed these are actually points regularly raised and in fact are the reason the project can only be achieved as a Government project.

      "but the private sector seems to be treating it as just another opportunity to dip into the government’s cash-lined pockets, with minimal protections and proper performance only when prodded"
      Abel Adamski
      • Indeed Abel. The coaltion clowns would have us believe the private sector is capable of handling this all on their very own. That's very curious... Lets now hear again from simpletons over at The Australian;-)
        Hubert Cumberdale
  • Tell us...

    What the Australian (and therefore you) have to say... Richard *sigh*.

    I'm a libertarian... ROFL
    RS-ef540
    • The article was about an NBNCo "all-staff email"

      Poor RS; still nothing.
      Richard Flude
      • All been said...

        So what side did the coin drop today.

        Firstly it was "NBNCo is to blame"

        Then "no denies, it's Telstra responsibility"...

        And now back to, "oh and not just Telstra".

        But of course you never said those other things did you, unless I supply a link...ROFL.
        RS-ef540
        • It was always never JUST Telstra

          In every post topic. Link please, the historical record is very unkind to you.

          Much like the party itself; given up. Media points a point of ridicule by their own members of parliament:-)
          Richard Flude
          • Link please...

            Get out of gaol free card...

            "No one denies it's Telstra responsibility"...!
            RS-ef540
          • Sure is

            Called out your BS; defined by it lack of supporting evidence.

            RS wrong about everything.
            Richard Flude
          • *sigh*

            You can keep saying BS all you like, to put on a facade to desperately try to convince others that you have minimal credibility remaining. But by doing so, all you have just done is proven that you have no credibility at all.

            You say something then weeks later say you didn't, show me where I did...really?

            Wow there's conviction to what you write, you can't even remember what you said, I need to remind you... LOL

            AGAIN I repeat, YOU and I know it's true. But sadly you aren't man enough to own up to what you have said.

            Congratulations... as I have said all along, on top of your unfounded 24/7 NBN negativity, if you must now add lying about what you know you have said previously... the NBN must be a bigger threat to your politics and wallet than we even thought :/
            RS-ef540
          • "You can keep saying BS all you like, to put on a facade to desperately try to convince others that you have minimal credibility remaining. But by doing so, all you have just done is proven that you have no credibility at all."

            Nailed it.

            Honestly this sounds like classic case of someone projecting RS. The religious anti-NBN zealots all the same it seems.
            Hubert Cumberdale
          • Indeed HC

            They all read from the same illogical and completely irrational script from their political masters...

            Funny how all of the things they complained about in relation to the NBN initially, are no longer complained about, because if actual , they would apply even more so to to the NBN's inferior alternative.

            And what gives these people's motives away completely (like alain over at Deli) is they even promote the very same things they previously bagged the NBN for, in relation to the NBN's inferior alternative...

            *rolls eyes*
            RS-ef540
          • "And what gives these people's motives away completely"

            yep and looking to the polls to give us reasons why NBN = bad a tell-tail sign;-)
            Hubert Cumberdale
          • Yet you can't produce a single example

            Should be easy
            Richard Flude
          • Indeed I agree, not a "single" example...

            AGAIN, since you went AWOL first time...

            * We don't need government intervention because private enterprise will invest vs. the reason we are here is because Telstra didn't invest...

            * Once the NBN started "all" investment in comms stopped vs my company just finished a comms project.

            * Claiming it will cost $b's to roll out fibre (in relation to the small town thinking article) vs. my company rolls out fibre for under $10 per metre

            * The asbestos issue is all NBNCos fault vs no one denies it's Telstra's responsibility

            * Says copper is NOT obsolete vs. my company rolls out fibre.

            * Says he's a libertarian and copper is NOT obsolete vs no comment, when confronted with noted libertarian Steve Forbes saying copper IS obsolete and suggesting those who think otherwise are "stuck in the past".

            That's just the ones where you have proven yourself wrong...

            Without including the likes of claiming the NBN is being incorrectly accounted for - WRONG.

            The 7.1% ROI is required to keep the NBN off budget- WRONG.

            Talking about OH&S - which has been WH&S for 18 months or so.

            So I agree, not a "single" example...
            RS-ef540
          • Now for the icing...

            Please deny you said these things...
            RS-ef540
          • HC...

            Link please *rolls eyes*
            RS-ef540
          • Pick anyone, provide a link

            And watch your BS be exposed.

            Your ignorance results in not comprehending what is written.

            I've an excellent memory; look forward to discussing any of the above claims with a clown.
            Richard Flude
          • FFS

            DID YOU SAY THESE THINGS... YES OR NO?

            Enough talk...time to walk the walk ...BOY.
            RS-ef540
          • BTW...

            The claims are all written above... discuss away (and feel free to include me too) you don't have to just talk to yourself;-)
            RS-ef540