NBN needs workers on board

NBN needs workers on board

Summary: Without consensus on labour issues, the eventual winner of the NBN may end up as little more than a lame duck and a cashed-up symbol of the conflict between the desire for progress and the lack of mechanisms to deliver it.

TOPICS: Telcos, Optus, Telstra

Several months ago, after one of my columns about the NBN process, I got a call from the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), which wanted to follow up on some of the points I had raised.

Even before I heard questions like "could anybody but Telstra build the NBN?" I knew the reason for their call: as a major civil works project, this contract gives the unions unprecedented opportunity to assert themselves. They already know their plan; they're just fine-tuning the details to extract maximum leverage.


(Credit: Yarik Mission, Royalty free)

It's hardly a surprise. After 11 years in which Howard-era changes to workforce policies effectively sidelined the unions, traditionally more-friendly Labor policies and a stronger union presence now will give new raison d'etre to the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU); Australian Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers Australia (APESMA); Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) and others.

All have been defanged in the face of the strong push towards individual worker contracts, and all must be feeling new resolve given their ongoing battle with Telstra, which has steadily alienated itself with the unions through its reported refusal (depending on which side you're listening to at the time) to engage in collective bargaining negotiations.

The human side of the NBN is something that has been lost in the endless to-ing and fro-ing over policy theoreticals, but — as with the Snowy Mountains Scheme, Melbourne's CityLink and other major civil projects — it will ultimately play a significant role in the contract's success or failure.

No matter whether Telstra, TERRiA, Optus, Acacia or anybody else wins, it will take a cast of thousands to drill holes, run lines, string fibre, make and test connections, troubleshoot, configure, commission, sell, and maintain the whole shebang.

Since the jobs are likely to be contracted out, it's probably going to be the same pool of people doing the actual work in the end; Telstra techs may know wiring, but construction skills are concentrated in other companies. Still, Telstra has continued to shed staff in their hundreds, with Optus recently following suit with 115 cuts from its network division.

With a potentially massive contract hanging just out of reach, it's amazing that Telstra and Optus feel they don't need these people; who will build the NBN in the end? The answer, of course, is "the same people" — but they'll come back into the fold as contractors rather than employees, carrying the inherent lower cost base and disposability that comes with not having your own named space in the company carpark.

These members do, however, have recourse. Unless Howard's workplace reform has already diluted the unions' memberships, they still hold the key to completing the NBN in anything resembling decent time. Karma may well come back to bite Telstra and Optus on the posterior if and when the CEPU kicks off what was previously described as a "highly likely" series of rolling strikes against Telstra (for which it this week applied for formal permission).

If history is any guide, stop-works by the CEPU's 10,000 Telstra employees will be timed to coincide with seasonal peaks such as support spikes in activating the many iPhones and BlackBerrys Santa will leave under the tree this year. Emergency calls will still get priority, we're told, but everything else will be the equivalent of trying to navigate your new Hummer through Friday rush-hour traffic on Hoddle Street (for those of you outside of Melbourne, just think about horrible gridlock).

It's safe to say that no matter who wins the NBN contract, we can expect some union obstruction as workers push for more favourable conditions

To make life even harder, the CPSU, APESMA and anybody else with a grievance is guaranteed to make their voices heard through stop-works and other disruptions that will raise big question marks over the smooth implementation of the NBN.

There's no telling whether Senator Conroy is talking with his workplace relations counterparts to push through legislation for facilitating the NBN, but I think it's safe to say that no matter who wins the NBN contract, we can expect some union obstruction as workers push for more favourable conditions — and entreat the telcos to stop laying them off by the dozens.

What a shame that, less than three weeks out from the NBN submission deadline, we can already see suggestions of the troubles that await. Heck, despite having a definite interest in success, iiNet's Michael Malone has even come out calling the whole exercise a "monumental failure" in progress.

It's even more galling because Australia's inability to resolve this deadlock is starting to make us look pretty stupid in the eyes of the rest of the world. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said as much during his recent visit to Australia, where he fronted investors alongside Sol Trujillo and, responding to a student who asked how Australia was supposed to participate in cloud computing initiatives without faster broadband, said "it's time to get on with it" ("it" being the rollout of faster broadband).

It certainly is time. However, as we're likely to see in the leadup to year's end and well through 2009, the unions, government, Telstra, and its competitors all have different ideas about just what "it" is and, more to the point, how we can actually get on with it.

Without consensus on labour issues and a more constructive relationship with the people who will be putting the fibre in the ground, the eventual winner of the NBN may end up as little more than a lame duck — a cashed-up symbol of the conflict between the desire for progress, and the lack of mechanisms to deliver it.

Are you union? Are you not? What concessions do you think it will take for the NBN to be built?

Topics: Telcos, Optus, Telstra


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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  • What do Unions do when employee's are treated fairly, even rewarded ?

    What concensions? nothing at all above and beyond what the unions want from Telstra even if its not building the nbn.

    A senator who has the where with all & engineering skills to make a decision instead of sitting on his thumbs!
    God help us if he takes the easy route & gives it to Telstra! assuming of course no other submission, worth considering, is made. Even if one is? will he take the easy course?

    David, I loved your quip about the Hoddle St., grid lock.

    Just another example of a government incapable of making decisions until everything grinds to a halt. I suspect a case of too many Arts Degrees (useless qualification) and unqualified d*ckheads, both politicians and the bureaucrats, in power.
  • Its not needed?

    And on top ofall that, the guy from iiNet says its not needed because 90% of the population is served by ADSL2. Well, 90% of the population might live in large metro areas, and large metro areas have ADSL2, but there's a fair whack of those same large metro areas that can't get ADSL1 never mind ADSL2. You need to be living within 2km of your phone exchange to get 12Mbps. I live 6.5km away and I can't even get ADSL1. And I'm in the middle of a suburb, not the bush, in a 20 year old suburb in Australia's largest capital city. And its certainly not the only suburb in this predicament.

    So the quicker it gets built, the better. And it MUST have reasonable data quotas, minimum 10Gb a month combined upload & download (in peak time, not at 4am, so that ABC's iView etc can be watched).

    Yes the world might be building 50Mbps, and we will probably have that too in phase 2. But we don't even have phase 0.5 yet. Remember too that the plan is for a MINIMUM 12Mbps speed, that's for the people at the end of the copper, those closer to the node will have better.

    All I can say is HURRY UP AND BUILD IT, and make sure that it is TRULY open, NOT run by the wholesale arm of a retail corporation.
  • David, You're on the right track.

    I'm one of the 800+ Telstra recently retrenched, many with requisite NBN skills. You're on the right track - the NBN scale is enormous. The successful tenderer has heaps of copper to replace, but also all those old RIMs, which the current Australian workforce (Telstra + contractors) has been busy installing for 13 years. Replacing all this in 5 years while avoiding major disruptions to household and business services gives some idea of the workforce required. Importing workers is a possibility, however Australia isn't the only nation with an NBN idea. Singapore & New Zealand are starting similar upgrades and (i speculate) other nations may now be considering upgrades as an option for recession-offsetting infrastructure spending. The slower Australia is at starting NBN, the more resources early-starter nations will garner. I for one am considering moving to New Zealand.
  • NBN build

    As a tech myself, and a union member, my great concern is if Telstra does get the build that they will treat the NBN contractors like they do their current ones. Revenue raising fines are the order of the day as well as pulling work off subbies to give to their own staff leaving many on the brink of starvation. Think I'm exagerating? Next time you see a Service Stream, Silcar or BSA contractor on the side of the road, stop and ask them what they think. People are leaving this industry in droves.
  • So you think Telstra Tech's don't have the skill's ?

    Well David that's a myth , who do you think built the infrustructure prior to the advent of contractors ? We might be a bit ragged now but we have the skills for any part of a build . Some of the work by contractors has been appalling due in no small part to Telstra's lack of auditing of their work . The tides changing now and us old boys in NC are now using our staff and contractors in a more intelligent manner to get the result Telstra pays for not what they want to give . And like any other skill if you want it you have to pay for it .
  • @So you think Telstra Tech's don't have the skill's ?

    It's interesting you should bring up the "who built the infrastructure" comment. It wasn't too long ago that Telstra had double the number of employees they have now.

    That number drop has either been caused by layoffs or retirements, and any of the technical layoffs wanting to work in the field would have moved onto other carriers.

    So the flaw in your argument is that there is no doubt just as many ex-Telstra technical employees working for other telcos who built the original network as there are of those original techs still working at Telstra. So the human skillset and experience that Telstra had and used to built the original network, well in simple terms all the carriers have it now.
  • also

    I dont think the argument is whether the current telstra techs have the skill or not, but whether theres enough of them, the NBN is a huge project, hardly enough for the paltry amount of techs telstra still has, and there still planning on shedding more!

    so australia, remember, should telstra win the bid (God forbid) thank service stream for the build, and hate tesltra for the gouging
  • optus dial up expensive

    imagine optus building the NBN bwahaha. I pay $50 for a recharge on my mobile and get 500mb of data to use at 3g speeds occasionally. Rest of the time it's dial up speed. great for watching streaming video and receiving large attachments lol.
  • @optus dial up expensive

    The NBN is for the wholesale delivery of faster (hopefully) speeds to retailers who then sell to the end customer.

    What exactly does any ISPs retail department have first of all with the wholesale delivery of the NBN, after all it's the end retailer who will choose their own cost structure not the wholesaler. And what does it have to do with the topic of the article which is on the amount of workforce (and if any bidders really do have it) that will be required to build the NBN.

    Your post is as relevant to the article as it is to the building of the NBN, and that's completely irrelevant to both.
  • garr, expose yourself.

    garr, your insulting and irrational remarks could not come from a person with a balanced view of the telecom industry.

    It is time to expose those who spew forth anti Telstra rabid garbage as those who have business interests opposed to Telstra.

    Telstra may not be perfect but they are great contributors to the Australian economy and certainly do not deserve the rubbish you talk.
  • @garr, expose yourself.

    "garr, your insulting and irrational remarks could not come from a person with a balanced view of the telecom industry."

    Considering the one-eyed biased Telstra propaganda you always post I can't help but laugh when you start accusing people of not having a balanced via of the telco industry :-)

    I think NOT!
    Sydney your view is anything BUT balanced. You continually spew forth a totally biased view, & troll on about Telstra.
    If the government ever provides an NBN, a very debatable view, lets hope it's way, way better than 12 Mbps. Why would anyone on ADSL2+ ever want 12 Mbps when they are, like mine, approaching 20Mbps.
    Lets have 50Mbps a realistic figure for Fibre, and I might consider it, but not at the price Telstra would charge for it.

    I know, I know, lots aren't even getting ADSL1 (telstras fault), simply because Telstra doesn't provide decent copper wire maintenance. It's a mish mash of different gauges, RIMS, aging infrastructure which should have been replaced years ago, but they sacked all the staff who had the skills & knowledge.

    As so many have already observed, Telstra doesn't have the skills any more & they don't pay their workers enough to give a damn!

    Why would anyone in their right mind, want Telstra to build the NBN? It's a job for free enterprise & competition, not a monopoly.
  • ladies & gents please welcome mr balanced keith ROFL

    you know keith, i have no affiliation either way. i know you will find that hard to believe being up to your orbs in tttt crap yourself.

    but when i read sydneys telstra jibberish and your anything but telstra jibberish, its like looking at the info mirror. youre both playing the same sport, throwing the same ball and spewing up the same **it, but from the opposite side of the field. lmao

    bit rude you pointing the finger at sydney when you are the anti-sydney.

    what do they say about glass houses and stones.
  • God be with you.

    Ned your illuminating advice about people and glass houses is timely and accurate.

    Ned there are opposing views but only one side can be right, the other wrong.

    Ned could I boldly suggest that I am the Christ and Keith is the Anti-Christ.

    Keith, the 12Mbps they are talking about is for people at the end of the copper. If your closer to the node then you will get better speed. I work for a modem company that will be bidding to have their modems bundled into the VDSL2+ service that will be supplied and we are seeing speeds of up to 250Mbps (though about 3m from the exchange), if you getting 20Mbps at the moment 70 or so (depending on factors) could be realistic.
  • And I!

    I am santa! ho ho ho!!, mobiles on expensive long term contracts for all the kids! decades old copper for the suburbs! RIMS and other Pair Gain for new estates! staff downsizing, off-shoring, de-unioning, pay cutting, for all! ho ho... oh... oh no, it seems telstra got into santas workshop, sorry kiddies, looks like the grinch became incorpated and hired a CEO
  • Encouraging results, but what about pair gain?

    Could this see a boom in housing properties close to the local exchanges? Hrmmm.

    It is worth mentioning that the 12Mbps is a base requirement for the contract and not related to any specific technology options that NBN bidders may suggest; speed will be determined by technology.

    Interesting that Conroy should have chosen the number 12Mbps as this is in the class of speed that fixed wireless broadband can deliver -- perhaps it was always his intention that the NBN should include an element of wireless last-mile connections.

    Like any technology VDSL performance drops off with distance and it certainly has higher bandwidth parameters, as TransACT has shown for years.

    This raises more questions: what will the NBN bidders do to fix all the pair gain lines out there -- to what point will they affect performance speed, and is there any reason to think VDSL will run over pair gain lines any better than ADSL does (not)? Or will the FttN structure bypass the problematic parts of the pair gain connections?
  • Importing workers

    You're right that importing workers would be a possibility -- as you correctly point out, in Singapore, Dubai, Hong Kong, and other fast-growth areas the government facilitates the entry of Indian workers in their thousands. Coincidentally, they are normally appallingly treated - sure they are paid better than in their home countries but the safety standards, workers' compensation, utter lack of unionism and right to strike, 16 and 24-hour shifts, sardine-like living conditions, etc mean it is not for the faint-hearted.

    Australia used tens of thousands of migrants to complete the Snowy River Scheme -- but I wonder whether a similar arrangement would ever fly politically now, given the current economic conditions, mass layoffs, and the need to erode workers' individual rights significantly to make sure the job just gets done. The unions would fight it tooth and nail, and it would also involve a massive reversal of Australia's incredibly exclusive immigration policy. Anybody think Rudd would have the cojones to stir that particular pot of trouble at this juncture, just for faster broadband?
  • Exactly

    No, it's not about whether the Telstra techs have the skills -- of course there are many highly skilled techs within Telstra and my intention isn't to diminish the capabilities of current Telstra employees who would provide important project management, technical guidance, designing and many other skills.

    The thing is, Telstra is no longer the nationalised bank of employment that it once was; the privatised entity has been slashing jobs willy nilly and labour shortages would seem to be a very real issue.

    One can't expect the country to wait for a decade or whatever just because Telstra wants its internal techs to do the whole thing -- the NBN is a geographically massive undertaking and it would be folly for Telstra to try to do the whole thing by itself. So the question is not about skills -- it is, as garr suggests, about where will the rest of the workers come from (and on whose terms).