NBN delay attacks couched in impatience

NBN delay attacks couched in impatience

Summary: Council areas given the chance to access the NBN seem to want it — and yesterday. But the NBN isn't going to be built overnight, and it really can't get started in earnest until it gets a disinterested Telstra to sign on the dotted line. Yet this hasn't stopped critics from attacking every delay as a failure of the NBN — even when they're contributing to those delays. Is this unfair criticism, or a fair cop by NBN Co?


Imagine a mate asks you over to help him carry a new couch into his lounge room — but that his lounge room turns to be up two flights of narrow stairs. As you grunt and swear trying to push his three-seater against the pull of gravity, his kids jump onto it. All six of them. And bring the dog. And pelt you with lollies. And whack your hands with their cricket bats. Through it all, your mate sits at the top of the stairs, claiming a bad back, drinking a cold beer and urging you to hurry up so he can watch the footy.

Given the recent hail of criticism and complaints about the NBN's mechanics, this is about the best analogy I can come up with to describe the current status of the network roll-out.

Even as strong demand for the NBN suggests people are getting used to its promise and can't wait to get it, its opponents point to every small delay as a sign of its fundamental incompetence: witness Malcolm Turnbull's recent attack on the NBN delays after NBN Co's claimed attempt to reduce the cost of the roll-out was revealed. This is the same Turnbull who, a few weeks ago, was happy to squander scarce House time arguing there was no need to rush the NBN. This is a common theme from Turnbull, but it loses something when he and go-for-the-jugular party leader Tony Abbott are contributing to those delays.

(New Orleans Bookshop Couch and Globe image by Emily Baron, CC2.0)

Now, we hear Telstra may not even put its proposed agreement with NBN Co to shareholders until its annual general meeting in November. This represents the latest in a string of delays that has pushed out Telstra's time frame by many, many months — and I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying that the NBN would be moving a whole lot faster if the agreement with Telstra were finalised.

Like a chauffeur waiting impatiently for a diva primping herself yet another time even though she's already an hour late for her concert, NBN Co has no choice, really, but to wait on Telstra to decide that it is ready to present the agreement to its shareholders. Some early NBN residents have complained about overhead NBN cables, but it can't wholeheartedly start most of its roll-out until it can get access to Telstra's ducts — and Telstra is certainly taking its time in making that happen. Critics who complain the network isn't built yet, might as well be bagging Ian Thorpe for falling short in his swimming comeback before he's even gotten his togs on.

I am reminded of the scene in The Princess Bride where the Dread Pirate Roberts faces off with the giant Fezzik:

"We face each other as God intended — sportsmanlike," the giant says. "No tricks, no weapons, skill against skill alone."

"You mean, you'll put down your rock and I'll put down my sword and we'll try and kill each other like civilised people?" the pirate asks. "I think the odds are slightly in your favour at hand fighting."

"It's not my fault being the biggest and the strongest," Fezzik responds as Roberts repeatedly and unsuccessfully tries to pound him. "I don't even exercise."

"Look, are you just fiddling around with me or what?" Roberts asks.

"I just want you to feel you're doing well," the giant asks. "I hate for people to die embarrassed."

David Thodey's Fezzik, who has precious little interest in making life easier for NBN Co, is working along similar lines. Stephen Conroy, who recently granted Telstra a 90-day extension to complete its delayed separation plans, must have been steaming when he read about the company's megabucks AFL content deal. One wonders whether Telstra's lawyers could have finalised the separation and NBN Co details if they had been tasked with those projects, rather than burying the papers in their inboxes and focusing instead on stitching up new revenue sources for the company.

Even as it awaits Telstra's pleasure, NBN Co cops the brunt of a rising tide of discontent from those who variously hate the project or hate the company for depriving them of it. No sooner had NBN Co announced plans to fibre over 11,000 premises across seven more areas of the state, than Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (TCCI) representatives were complaining that the NBN Co roll-out is bypassing built-up areas and business centres to — gasp — bring fibre to households that currently have quite deficient internet services.

These business groups are, in effect, complaining that the NBN isn't cherry-picking the most profitable areas in which to roll out its network first — yet a key part of the network's brief is to bring broadband to areas that profit-minded telcos have ignored. The rest of us just have to be a little bit patient, which hasn't stopped councils in more built-up areas lobbying NBN Co to prioritise their areas for early roll-out (Wollongong is the most recent example).

It seems everybody wants a piece of the NBN — and wants it yesterday. Citizens' groups complaining about the NBN's structure might as well be complaining because a new highway doesn't have individual off-ramps for each street in the area. It's technically possible, but, as always, traffic and civil engineers need to balance the common good with available resources and efficient design. The resulting infrastructure may not please everybody, but one has to believe there were good reasons for it being the way it is.

Nonetheless, NBN Co's olive branch — the latest in what has become quite a bouquet, plucked off what appears to be NBN Co's massive Conciliatory Tree, has been to announce a policy that will allow councils to contribute to the cost of a fibre roll-out to extend the NBN into sparsely populated areas. It's basically offering to facilitate the people's NBN, but sceptics have already descended, warning that the roll-out could cost 10 times NBN Co's rate if done on a piecemeal basis.

Business groups are, in effect, complaining that the NBN isn't cherry-picking the most profitable areas in which to roll out its network first — yet a key part of the network's brief is to bring broadband to areas that profit-minded telcos have ignored.

Let's not forget those who have recently been complaining that the NBN won't bring fibre to 100 per cent of premises, and those who attack the NBN because they don't like the colour of the in-house network termination unit (NTU). Or those who complained about a 14-site Point of Interconnect (PoI) model, then complained when NBN Co took some time to adjust it north of 100 sites.

It's one thing to attack NBN Co over one piddling point or another, but do we still have the right to complain when the company adjusts its schedule to accommodate the additional scope necessary to address the thing that has been complained about? NBN Co has been nothing but accommodating, copping criticism at every step even as it works to make progress in what is, until the Telstra agreement is signed, effectively neutral gear.

Indeed, the disruptive blither around the NBN has become so bad that NBN committee witnesses like Huawei Technologies spokesperson Jeremy Mitchell are, quite reasonably, calling for a bipartisan approach so we can, if you'll forgive the Gillard-ism, move forward together. Still others are arguing that the NBN has already tripped itself up and is on the way to extinction.

I've already appealed to the Liberals' sensibilities in suggesting they should focus on shaping, and not simply opposing, the NBN. Scrutiny is important and a fundamentally flawed project will fail, but constant whinging about delays outside of NBN Co's responsibility diminish the whole situation. This stuff is complicated, and the project cannot be judged until it is allowed to find its proper speed. Get the kids off the couch, put away their cricket bats, and help carry that couch up the stairs and you might have a chance of getting it into position before the first bounce.

Is the NBN taking too long? If so, why? And what — if anything — can the government do to hurry Telstra up?

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Government AU, Tech Industry


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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  • It's the unhappy meeting point of the cutting edge new technology, where bits travel around the world in a fraction of a second, and old school ditch-digging and cable-laying, which is by its very nature slow and tedious. Proponents of the one feel hampered by the limitations of the other.

    On sober reflection, however, there is no need to panic; the processes are moving ahead, agreements will be reached (with Telstra, perhaps by 23 May) and political will on the Government's part shows no sign of wavering.

    We may find ourselves 6 months behind where things might have been, but what is that over the lifetime of the project - and the lifetime of the fibre itself?

    The fact that regional councils are falling over themselves to call for an early rollout in their area tells me all I need to know - the demand isn't going away any time soon, and the NBN is a highly sought after benefit. And one that will only grow in desirability as the number of real-world users grows.
    • "The fact that regional councils are falling over themselves to call for an early rollout in their area tells me all I need to know - the demand isn't going away any time soon"

      Exactly. I wouldn't expect Abbott and the rest of his zoo crew to acknowledge this though, according to them dial-up is all anyone ever needs. Bring on the fibre.
      Hubert Cumberdale
  • This seems to be another example of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't from the NBN haters. Whether they are motivated by corporate, political or shareholder interest is probably not even relevant.

    These nay-sayers have been complaining loud and long that there is not enough information being made available, so steps are being taken to address that - and now they are howling that it's a waste of money!
  • Hello HELLO is anybody there, hello, oh blast it not working again!
    Blank Look
  • "I've already appealed to the Liberals' sensibilities in suggesting they should focus on shaping, and not simply opposing, the NBN. Scrutiny is important and a fundamentally flawed project will fail, but constant whinging about delays outside of NBN Co's responsibility diminish the whole situation. "

    Not really, the constant "whining" you are saying that is happening is not "outside" of NBNCo's responsibility at all, NBNCo would not exist if it wasn't for politics, so NBNCo's responsibility and effectiveness relies entirely on the government in power and all the craptastic legislation its trying to push. If the anti-competitive legislation didn't go through, then NBNCo wouldn't even be able to deliver what its set out to do

    If you wanted NBNCo to be completely isolated from politics, you should have set up an environment so the private industry could have done it with government subsidies to fill in for rural areas (this is by the way how almost every developed country in the world does it). Of course such an environment doesn't exist due to vertically integrated Telstra, and it has even worse chance of existing under NBNCo (which is a horrible thing, it will set us back even further)

    Until then, expect NBN to get continuously delayed, and we will expect a new article from you whenever it happens. As I have said before, completely renationationalizing a new sector (in this case telecommunications) is considered insane to most ordinary people, and politicians. Its like me arguing that if I wanted to give everyone 10000 dollars as a stimulus package with government funds (even if it was the good idea) you would be complaining that people would be "delaying" and "criticizing it"

    Get used to it
    • “dat ego”…

      So you want the government to gift non-returnable monies (subsidies) to private enterprise, for a few wealthy investors/multi-national companies to build Australia’s comms network, then own and profit from … leaving taxpayers no asset ownership and out of pocket $B's?

      Whilst hypocritically, simultaneously screaming waste, when the government are currently building a network which will be owned by, receive a ROI for and will itself, pay all Australian taxpayers back in full… leaving "us" ownership of a valuable asset!

      What utter, ideological rubbish!

      And…talking about the way other countries do things… the majority of the world’s population use a language other than English, so should we change that too?
  • David your article is so full of refutable assertions that I will make no attempt to list them, but they do demonstrate the thinking of a person with a one sided attitude who cannot see the woods for the trees and who is not fair or resonable.

    We all agree that the NBN would be a good thing. Some debate that the problem is the cost and the benefit that will be returned to Australians or that a satisfactory result could be achieved with a far smaller spend. What is not in doubt is the gigantic problematic exercise in delivering the NBN as proposed.

    All snouts are in the trough ( as you would expect with untold billions up for grabs) and the risks are great that the Australian taxpayer will be ripped off. The regulation discrepancies are endless. For example the ACCC (champion of competition) allowing a NBN monopoly with no competition allowed is mind boggling.

    If the government is willing to take the political risk that is present with the NBN proposal that is one thing but to criticise those who have a different point of view and see dangers and waste in this project is to ignore the basic human freedom of a competitive and free Australia.
    • "For example the ACCC (champion of competition) allowing a NBN monopoly with no competition allowed is mind boggling."

      Not really considering the monumental and spectacular failure the free market has had in delivering fixed line broadband in this country. The government had to step in and take action.

      Having multiple competing layer 2 services running down the most profitable streets while leaving the NBN to only pickup the costs of servicing the unprofitable ones makes no sense.
    • Sydney…

      Accusing David of bias, coming from one who is so Telstra partial he refers to Telstra as “Saint Telstra and says God Bless Telstra”, is an absolute farce…

      Since your TLS share driven agenda did not allow you to read the article clearly (as it never does) David’s entire gist to the opposition was… scrutinise with vigour and oppose the NBN by all means, but unlike the dirty tactics you use now, please try to do so ethically…!

      As for you ridiculous ACCC/monopoly comment, seriously, not worth explaining it (as I have done before) AGAIN is it.
  • What rot in your preamble...."disinterested Telstra"

    After paying SIXTY BILLION DOLLARS for the copper network and spending MILLIONS more innovating it, one does not sign on the dotted line of a foolish recipe for a potential disaster without due diligence.

    Now digesting the rest
    Vasso Massonic
    • Addendum.

      It pays, sometimes to judge a book by its cover - I didn't and copped indigestion.

      It's clear as mud, this impatience with the NBN deployment. Perhaps it's to do with Syd's comment VIZ "All snouts are in the trough ( as you would expect with untold billions up for grabs)" In fact, it is. let's get the NBN ball rolling before reality is upon us.

      The clue, Courtesy: http://www.smh.com.au/technology/technology-news/mobile-broadband-traffic-to-soar-exponentially-20110504-1e78l.html
      Vasso Massonic
      • What a poor excuse for a pro-wireless argument. I signed up for a mobile phone, guess what? I've got data included with it wether i want it or not? In our household, we've got 8 mobile phones all with data plans attached. Majority were used for when we're out and about. Guess what? We still uses the fixed broadband for all our heavy lifting, everyone's wireless devices are connected to the fixed line broadband via wireless router whenever we're home. Even the big Tel$tra admitted that wireless is no replacement for fixed line, it's only complementary. You're cost arguments and links to the un-Australian as a reliable source is getting extremely old. I wonder why the un-Australian didn't publish an article about the 90% take up rate in New England????
        Salami Chujillo
        • It's not a pro-wireless argument but to do with due diligence when considering demolishing billions of dollars worth of terrestrial telecommunications infrastructures and replacing them with a dubious billions of dollars worth NBN FTTH network in ten years time. At a time of soaring demand for mobile broadband which is expected to cost consumers much less due to the economy of scale process.
          Vasso Massonic
          • Did you get the bit about "requiring more mobile spectrum" ???? Spectrum are finite, unlike fibre which has infinite possibilities.
            Salami Chujillo
          • When Spectrum becomes finite to satisfy the needs of a small 22 + million population the NBN will be ancient history.
            Vasso Massonic
          • this comment doesn't make any sense...
          • Vasso...

            The copper is both outdated and worn...

            It is unable to handle our current needs "properly", let alone future applications (as gauged by past trends)...

            The dubious thing to do is to keep using the copper, not upgrade...sigh...
          • How wrong you are. Telstra were willing to spend $4 billion to upgrade its network to fast Fibre to the Node (FTTN) but the Howard Government had other ideas. So did the Rudd/Gillard Government who chose instead to borrow and spend $50 billion to build castles in the air.
            Vasso Massonic
          • LIES....Vasso, out and out lies...

            It was NOT the Howard Government's fault what-so-ever...

            Telstra withdrew from negotiations with the ACCC (because of their own greed)... how many times must you be told and how many time must I copy/paste this official URL (not some politically motivated rag as you do)?


            Also... Telstra FTTN was in "capital cities only" - the rural part was OPEL which both YOU and Telstra fought tooth and nail to stop...Using such disgraceful tactics including using racist slurs against the Singaporean owned OPTUS (the OP in OPEL)...

            Seriously, I don't know what worse NBN FUD or TLS shareholder lies...but in your case we get both so...you take the disgrace cake!
          • Rizz A.K.A. RS

            I, illegitimi non carborundum
            Vasso Massonic