NBN Co thumbscrews applied, Turnbull begins turning

NBN Co thumbscrews applied, Turnbull begins turning

Summary: Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has wasted no time in clearing out Labor's NBN Co legacy and installing sympathetic staff to deliver his FttN vision. But as he puts a broom through our most concentrated repository of NBN knowledge, has Turnbull thrown the baby out with the bath water?


It was only a year ago that new Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull began an address to Australia's telecommunications industry by saying that he would "rather talk about something other than the NBN".

Now that he's the minister, however, he certainly won't be talking about anything else for some time. As his hatchet-gang rides into town, revelations that he was responsible for the mass resignations of NBN Co's board show that he's so determined to get results quickly that he's not afraid of depleting the brains trust that could have helped his transition.

Malcolm Turnbull has wasted no time applying pressure to deliver his FttN vision — but will it work? Thumbscrew image: CC BY-SA 3.0 Anagoria

The Coalition's antipathy towards the existing NBN Co board — and, indeed, its entire staff — is well documented. Recall Andrew Robb's comments, in the leadup to the 2010 election, about NBN Co's "talentless" staff and claims that the company was "the usual stodgy, massive, bureaucratic, government-owned monopoly".

Those aren't exactly the kind of words that will endear an incoming Coalition government with the NBN Co crew, and they're a legacy that Turnbull will have to face down as he disposes of staff he sees as vestigial remnants of the bygone Labor era.

While his swift action may have put the whole of NBN Co on notice to up their game, it's also going to create organisational problems: it would be a foolish NBN staffer who has not been polishing up their CVs in recent months, and given the Coalition's government-reduction strategy it's almost certain that he will soon be axing hundreds of the very people that know the most about what's actually going on within the walls of NBN Co.

Turnbull has already asked for the company's help in meeting his timeline: "NBN Co should meet requests from our Departments for information as quickly as possible," he wrote in the new government's first Letter of Government Expectations to NBN Co.

Given that his policy will likely not only behead but eviscerate NBN Co's talent pool, I'd say protests, such as a staff-driven NBN Co go-slow movement, are entirely possible — if only to slow the loss of NBN Co expertise.

While his swift action may have put the whole of NBN Co on notice to up their game, it's also going to create organisational problems: it would be a foolish NBN staffer who has not been polishing up their CVs in recent months....Given that [Turnbull's] policy will likely not only behead but eviscerate NBN Co's talent pool, a staff-driven NBN Co go-slow movement is entirely possible. 

That loss, as we're now seeing, begins at the board level. However, given Turnbull's antipathy toward the board over their earlier moves to promote their positions, and industry rumours that board probity and confidentiality had been less than ideal, it was unlikely that the members ever had a chance.

The boardroom coup — which, for what it's worth, I predicted a year ago – is likely to be just the beginning as Turnbull moves to rearchitect the board, seizing the reins at NBN Co and jumping into bed with Telstra.

It became extremely clear in the leadup to the election that Turnbull had already had informal talks with Telstra to ensure it would play ball in transitioning to FttN; Turnbull's inexplicable confidence was not the mark of a man who felt he had anything to worry about. However, Turnbull now faces the very real challenge of ensuring that he doesn't give too much control to Telstra, too soon.

Appointing ex-Telstra CEO Ziggy Switkowski makes sense, since Switkowski has also previously headed Optus and is better informed than probably anybody else about how to overcome organisational inertia and get results at Australia's telecoms giants.

But that doesn't mean he will be any better at extracting additional concessions out of current Telstra CEO David Thodey — even though it does appear Thodey is warming to Turnbull's overtures — most likely because of the promise of massive construction contracts in a classic scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours scenario that could put billions more into Telstra's coffers.

Whatever revelations come scurrying out of NBN Co under the heat of Turnbull's blowtorch – the days until November 17, when the Abbott government will be 60 days old and Turnbull's first NBN Co review will be due, are sure to be interesting….any failure to meet his self-imposed deadlines can only be read as a failure of transition management.

To his credit, Turnbull has followed through with some of his long-stated (and entirely correct) demands for rollout transparency, using the Letter of Government Expectations to direct NBN Co to publish weekly rollout figures.

This will either prove him horribly wrong or, as is likely the case, entirely correct about the real progress of the rollout — and, more pertinently, the chances that it will be able to continue gaining momentum to read the sort of rollout speeds necessary for it to come anywhere near fulfilling its rollout speeds.

Whatever revelations come scurrying out of NBN Co under the heat of Turnbull's blowtorch – and whatever staffers follow them in the inevitable executive resignations and staff sackings to come — the days until November 17*, when the Abbott government will be 60 days old and Turnbull's first NBN Co review will be due, are sure to be interesting.

Ditto December 27, which will mark 100 days of Abbott government — and the due date for the revised NBN Co business plan that Abbott promised.

Turnbull has set the terms of his first big challenge as Communications Minister, and the clock is ticking. Given his ferocious indictment of NBN Co management over the past three years and his furious dispatching of Labor's managerial legacy, any failure to meet his self-imposed deadlines can only be read as a failure of transition management — and a sign that the outcomes Turnbull wants simply cannot be achieved unilaterally, as he believes.

What do you think? Should Turnbull have kept the previous board to draw on their capabilities? Can a Switkowski-led team spring into action to rework the NBN to Turnbull's accelerated timetable? Or can Turnbull expect an NBN Co staff go-slow in retaliation for his years of attacks on them? 

* Technically, Turnbull promised on September 12 that the strategic review would be complete "within the next 60 days"; if you take him to this word, the deadline is November 11. On that point, if you hold him to earlier proclamations the review would be complete 60 days from the election, the review has until November 6. But I am prepared to give him until the actual beginning of the Abbott government to start the clock. Others will not be so generous.

EDIT: Clarified method of calculating review deadlines.

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Government AU, Telcos, Telstra, IT Policies, Next Generation Networks


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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  • At Least

    Telstra and News Ltd's nightmare of a full FTTP NBN with Multicasting is now effectively destroyed with FTTN, so goal achieved. Telstra should now no longer be dragging its feet and sabotaging the FTTP roll out so suddenly markedly improved performance with actual real co operation from Telstra.
    Abel Adamski
  • Looking forward to the costing and assumptions

    I have worked in the Telco sector for 25 years and worked on costing of large VDSL rollouts in Japan, UK and Sweden.

    I am interested to see the costings of FTTP, and more importantly the assumptions.

    In my experience, you just need to fiddle with the Assumptions and you can make the costs fit whatever the number needs to be.
  • NBN Co thumbscrews applied, Turnbull begins turning

    The Labor party modelled the costings for NBN around small narrow land masses - Italy, Belgium & Asian Countries. TECHNOLOGY has to be a mixture now, as the Fibre is out dated. Optus & Telstra have their own Fibre Networks 'ready to go,' BUT Technology is moving forward at a breakneck pace. Popular Politics has to be replaced with sincere costings and affordable technology. I know the 'gamers' will shoot me down.
    • Fibre out of date?

      @ Legend59 When did fiber become out of date as you stated "as the Fibre is out dated"
      Fiber is the current and best technology. If it was out dated do you think Google would be running around cities in the USA and setting up their own fiber networks.
      VDSL & VDSL2 that we have no choice in getting was out of date in 2006.
      A report shows that if you live within 300m of a node you can receive 25 MBps speed, if you live further away the speed drops. As I live in a dead end street I will be lucky to receive 15 Mbps.
      Also why are France & UK setting up fiber rollouts as the UK experience has shown FTTN is out dated.
      Australian TV will not be able to access 4k or 8k TV as it requires 25 Mbps at the TV end to work properly.
      So australia will have the largest white elephant mix match networks in the world and the on going cost will be more expensive than FTTP.
      Good old Turnbill has not factored that in. Cost of owner ship to tax payers is going to be a shock.
  • Turnbulls obviously stacking the board

    Turnbull has long complained about the problem with the board being a lack of construction experience. If thats all the problem is, and the existing ones really are good and diligent workers, and he now proclaims, why sack them? The obvious solution seems to be add one more member with construction experience. All the others have very valuable skills, e.g. bankers, lawyers, etc. Why get rid of all those as well, because they are clearly needed in a company like NBN Co?
    The answer is more than abundantly clear. Turnbull wants his own lackies on the board. The CEO he is rumoured to be putting in, Ziggy Switkowski, has no construction experience either. So Trunbull will have a board of his own yes men heading up NBN Co who he then sets to task coming up with a new plan. Does anyone seriously think that plan will have anything other than what Turnbull wants to hear in it? Sacking an entire board is just a dumb idea, and sadly its driven by politics rather than common sense.
  • sadly

    I hate to say this we're about 25 years behind the rest of the world when it comes to vdsl tech and the reality is that 40+ km copper loop kinda makes FTTN/FTTC/FTTB a pointless solution..
    for FTTN to be a realistic deployment you will need more nodes per d/a (distribution area) footprint current price to bring the pit to 1st point up to vdsl2 standards is $5,000 do per 300 home d/a coverage area is $1,500,000, it's between 2.1-2.7 million deliver fttn..

    on a financial merit FTTN makes sense, that's when you completely ignore the d/a's copper loop is totally ignored as a service distance..

    most vdsl tech used across the world is serviced by fibre backhaul, max distance 1.5-2 miles on copper length..

    sadly anyone turnbull replaces is a basic yes man for him..

    i essence the liberal policy is a refined policy that had been in the trash can because it cost to much to deploy..

    when in telstra's employ ziggy was the 1 to reiterate that the copper was at 5 min to midnight and had to be replaced no way to fix a problem telstra created..

    to be honest the LNP are spineless wimps the only cure you can do is go through telstras books, until that happens nothing will get fixed... they need auditing on all levels..

    telstra is broken and shouldn't be allowed anywhere near NBNCo..
    Jason Howe
  • One NBN Person Who Has to Go

    The Australian: 9-Feb-2010

    "FORMER Queensland Labor MP Mike Kaiser landed a $450,000-a-year job at the national broadband network on the recommendation of federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.

    Revelations yesterday that the job was not advertised and no other candidates were short-listed for the position sparked allegations from the opposition of jobs for Labor mates.

    Mr Kaiser, who was appointed head of government relations and internal affairs for NBN Co -- the company charged with building the government's $43 billion national broadband network -- was until late last year chief of staff to Queensland Premier Anna Bligh. He was previously chief of staff to former NSW premier Morris Iemma. He quit his role as an MP over allegations of vote-rigging in the 1980s, but no charges were ever laid."