National Broadband Network (NBN) fibre network construction partner Visionstream has maintained its decision to not appear before the National Broadband Network Senate committee on the grounds that it would probe confidential information from its contract with NBN Co.
Visionstream is currently contracted to build out fibre to the premises to 190,000 premises across Tasmania, which would finish the construction of the network in the state. However, late last year, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull indicated that the company had done no work since July and was asking for higher rates to complete the work.
At the time, Visionstream said it already had 30 crews out in the field in Tasmania working on the network and ensuring the rollout would continue. Turnbull has said that Visionstream's contracts for fibre to the premises will only be honoured if Visionstream is meeting its obligations.
The Senate Select Committee investigating the NBN is in Tasmania today, hearing from the state government, and local organisations, and unions on the state of the NBN rollout. The committee confirmed to ZDNet that Visionstream was also asked to appear before the committee, but had declined to appear.
Earlier reports suggested that NBN Co had gagged Visionstream, but the gag is built into Visionstream's existing contract with NBN Co rather than a new edict from the company.
In a letter sent late last month to the committee, and obtained by ZDNet, Visionstream's general manager for the NBN, Allan Bradford, wrote that Visionstream was not able to attend the hearing due to its contractual obligations with NBN Co.
"Visionstream is obliged under our contractual arrangements with NBN Co to ensure that we do not disclose or make public any confidential information regarding the NBN project. This significantly limits what any representative of Visionstream might be able to say in response to any questions which may be asked by this committee," Bradford said.
In response, NBN Committee chair Senator Kate Lundy wrote back to Bradford stating that witnesses appearing before the committee do have the option of giving evidence in private, or in-camera, to protect them from divulging sensitive information. Lundy also indicated that NBN Co executives could appear with the Visionstream executives.
Visionstream again declined the invitation, ZDNet understands, but a spokesperson for Visionstream denied that NBN Co had gagged Visionstream.
"We have every respect for the Senate Select Committee and its aims; however, Visionstream operates under stringent confidentiality obligations for its NBN works, and for that reason, believe we would not be able to offer the committee the level of detail required in this setting," the spokesperson told ZDNet.
"This is a decision by Visionstream, and we have explained this to the chair of the committee. Visionstream is proud to be part of the NBN and look forward to the next phase of delivery of this significant nation building program."
The committee does have the power to compel companies and individuals to appear before the committee, and did use this power to force NBN Co executives to appear late last year, but the committee has decided against using this power for Visionstream at this time.
The incident is reminiscent of the former joint committee into the NBN's attempts to get construction partners to appear before the committee. Syntheo, then a joint venture of Lend Lease and Service Stream, was due to appear before the committee in April, but only representatives from Lend Lease turned up, and were unable to answer questions about Syntheo's construction issues.
Then-Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull: "What went wrong?"
Dale Connor, chief operating officer, construction and infrastructure, Lend Lease Australia: "From a Syntheo perspective — I am not able to speak about where Syntheo's detailed specifics are at. Again, I just want to reiterate the support that Lend Lease is putting into the resources to the program to look forward and work out where to go."
Turnbull: "Sure, but Mr Connor, you understand that obviously, the committee's interest is in why it was, after 20-odd months of construction, there were no premises in Syntheo's areas that were capable of being activated. So you are not able to shed any light on that?"
Connor: "No, and I think you could appreciate commercially what I cannot provide."
The committee today has heard from the Tasmanian Department of Premier and Cabinet, the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Local Government Association of Tasmania, construction unions, and Aurora energy — the energy provider with aerial infrastructure that the Tasmanian government has suggested could be used by NBN Co to cut down on the cost of the fibre rollout.