Consumer buck-passing is the unchanging NBN model

Of the menagerie of original sins with the NBN, the urge for it to be cashflow positive as quickly as possible keeps returning to hurt everyone involved.

If meat was handled in the same fashion as broadband in Australia, barbeques would be a lot less popular.

Imagine a situation where there is a single government-owned cattle farmer, the weirdly spelled National BoviNe (NBN), and you know of its existence because there are always ads on TV and buses telling you to eat more meat, but consumers are told to continue purchasing meat from butchers, like they always have.

However, NBN has begun selling a lower grade of steak, and says it is a result of butchers not wanting to pay for the full cost of raising the cattle used in its business. This cost has the ham-fisted acronym of CVC, or Creation of Veal Charge.

Further to this, often butcher shops are without steaks, and meat deliveries are missed and take repeat visits to complete. Some Australians report deliveries occurring a single sausage at a time.

As a consumer, you'd want to be able to yell at NBN, which continues to tell you how good meat is every night on your TV and that you should head to its website for more information, but you are directed to file a complaint with your local butcher or supermarket and naturally those complaints go nowhere, almost as though it is by design.

Frankly, it's little wonder that the increasing uptake of TOFU, a meat alternative developed by Telstra, Optus, VodaFone, and VocUs from a weekend hackathon, is continually hailed as the next big thing.

Tortured analogies aside, although there are very sound reasons why the Australian telecommunication industry is now structured the way it is -- there are plenty of national governments in the 1990s to blame for this -- from a consumer point of view, it is terrible.

Given how telcos have loved to parade their customer-centric credentials in recent years, it is more than a little ironic that as the NBN becomes the main way Australia connects to the internet, the industry is now more customer-hostile than ever.

The state of affairs was summed up best by NBN head honcho Bill Morrow, who told Senate Estimates about customer confusion.

"Most people don't even know what technology they're using," he said. "We don't get users calling in saying: 'I'm frustrated with my copper fibre-to-the-node technology', they may be calling in saying they are frustrated because I'm not getting what I was promised or expected to get from the retailer.

"We are quite conscious of this industry transformation that we have gone through, and that the end users are frustrated that they do not know who to talk to and who is responsible for what."

What Morrow never got the chance to address was why customers are calling up a government-owned wholesaler in the first place.

On this point, the blame must lie squarely at the feet of NBN, in all its forms since its inception.

From the very beginning, thanks to a lack of bipartisanship and the possible existence of a napkin full of calculations containing the handwriting of Stephen Conroy and Kevin Rudd, the NBN has been a political football.

Why was the Labor government that created NBN Co determined to keep it off the Budget as an investment rather than national infrastructure and push the company to make a sizeable rate of return as its earliest juncture?

Why did the Liberal government that replaced it end up with a plan best described as a technology halfway house rather than ripping the thing out of the ground like it had planned to in the past?


As it stands, with the current government capping its funding and handing it a loan, NBN needs people on its network in very short order.

With all of its advertising and advocacy, as well as most communication about the network being installed in users' streets coming from NBN and not the retailer, it should be no surprise that customers treat NBN as a retailer and not a government body.

Add to this NBN's role in the installation of a service, and confusion will reign.

"Further to the industry challenge, many people do not realise the government-owned NBN is only a small fraction of the end-to-end network that connects an end user to their internet content or the other end of the telephone," Morrow said in Senate Estimates last month.

"For example, in some cases, NBN is just the last 10 to 15 kilometres, but the retailers have a far greater stretch of network that must be invested in and maintained to support the user experience.

"Many end users are confused as to who does what and the industry, including us, must do a better job in providing that clarity. Having gone through some of the customer complaints, it is clear there is too much finger-pointing."

Over the course of the next 12 to 18 months, NBN is going to tackle the Evel Knievel-esque ramp up it needs to complete the network on time -- that means more confused customers, more Ombudsman complaints, and more sour taste all round.

It is not possible to untangle the pretzel of responsibility that surrounds the NBN after too many years with a dominant part-privatised Telstra being able to throw its weight around.

The constant in-your-face publicity machine but "don't talk to us" complaints style of NBN is not going away either, as its leadership needs to chase every dollar and would still need to under the original Labor model.

Regardless of the technology used, the handling of customers is a sore point that will continue to rub Australians the wrong way for years to come. It's no mistake, either; the system is working this way by design, and we are stuck with it until the powers that be decide to change it.

If NBN provided beef instead of broadband, there would be very good arguments to look for alternatives, but Australia is in no such situation and is instead lumbered with this solution for the mistakes of the past.