Hackett on NBN board: Gaining experience or silencing a critic?

The appointment of Internode founder Simon Hackett has broadly been met with approval by all sides of the NBN debate, but will his role be to better advise NBN Co, or to stop being a vocal, and well-informed critic of the NBN?
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

It is difficult for anybody to fault Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull for appointing Internode founder and telecommunications industry veteran Simon Hackett to the new NBN Co board, but will he be brought on for his vast knowledge and experience, or just to stop him giving inconvenient public advice about the rollout?

Hackett is the first uncontroversial appointment to NBN Co since the election, given Turnbull to date has appointed a range of ex-Telstra executives and friends from his days in the private sector.

It is not unsurprising that Hackett would be sought for a board position, he is one of the more thoughtful and constructive critics of the rollout and implementation of the National Broadband Network (NBN). His speeches at industry conferences and events for the past three years have been must-see.

Unlike many of the often hyperbolic critics of the NBN project, Hackett has had a technical approach to his criticism of the NBN rollout and its pricing model, but has been able to distill it in such a way that makes it easy for the average joe to understand.

His biggest criticism of the NBN so far has been NBN Co's pricing model. He has long been critical of the connectivity virtual circuit charge that sits on top of the monthly access charge for securing bandwidth from the point of interconnect to a customer's premises. Hackett has argued that the CVC costs are far too high, creating an artifical scarcity in bandwidth that doesn't exist.

He ended up in a few public debates with then-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy on that issue.

His more recent criticism has been that the Network Terminating Unit (NTU) and battery back up provided by Alcatel-Lucent could simply be replaced by a direct fibre connection, and would save the company on the cost of the NTUs and the installation cost. His full presentation is online, and worth watching.

It's not surprising that given his contribution to the debate so far, the reaction I have seen to his appointment to the NBN board has been mostly praising Turnbull for the decision. Even his shadow, Labor MP Jason Clare did not attack Turnbull for appointing Hackett, instead focusing on "more jobs for the boys" with the appointment of Turnbull's friend and ex-Telstra executive Justin Milne.

The scepticism around his appointment lies with those questioning whether Hackett will be able to be as vocal on the NBN when he is part of the board overseeing the project. It is much tougher to be an outspoken critic of the very project you're now a part of.

On the one hand, now that he is part of the project, Hackett will have a stake in ensuring that the project is delivering as promised, and will want to be a team player. But as to how much input Hackett gets, we will have to wait and see.

Hackett just is one of six NBN Co board members, all of whom will have their own ideas for the network. He will have to contend with the collective experience of at least two ex-Telstra executives in the form of executive chairman and former Telstra CEO Dr Ziggy Switkowski, and ex-Telstra executive Justin Milne.

Even if Hackett's influence on the board is substantial, there is no indication that he would advocate within NBN Co for the company to continue the Conrovian fibre-to-the-premises rollout. He will undoubtedly offer his more cost-effective alternative idea, but it is unlikely that he is going to be the FttP Trojan Horse that some would like him to be.

Hackett has been an important part of the NBN debate to date, and Turnbull now has the kind of experience he has long claimed the NBN Co board requires to undertake the massive task of improving broadband in Australia.

Let's just hope that NBN Co getting that experience doesn't come at the cost of the public debate around the rollout.

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