NBN as secretive as Scientology: Turnbull

As the year draws to a close, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has outlined operational concerns with the roll-out of the National Broadband Network (NBN) and worries that the project will go way over the budget.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

As the year draws to a close, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has outlined operational concerns with the roll-out of the National Broadband Network (NBN) and worries that the project will go way over the budget.

In a lengthy blog post on his website yesterday, Turnbull said that NBN Co, in conjunction with Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, had actively sought to withhold information about the $35.9 billion project without any commercial reason, "rather it reflects an apparent preference for secrecy and reluctance to be accountable at NBN Co".

"As it is, the NBN Co projects a defensive and non-transparent approach, which seems like a cross between the Kremlin and the Church of Scientology," he said.

Turnbull pointed to Conroy rejecting proposals for quarterly revenue reporting from NBN Co, the company not announcing where broadband will be delivered outside the 12-month plan released earlier this year — ignoring NBN Co's announced plans to publish a three-year indicative plan soon — and no up-to-date information on the number of active users on the network.

When NBN Co does cite commercial reasons for not being able to disclose information, Turnbull said this is being abused by the company.

"While commercial in confidence is a legitimate protection for some data in such circumstances, it should not become a shield that allows any question, however legitimate, to be loftily brushed aside," he said.

Turnbull also brought into question a statement in the second Parliamentary Joint Committee on the NBN report that NBN Co had "passed" 75,000 Greenfields lots.

"It is difficult to determine how many (if any) of the 75,000 households NBN Co claims to have passed in 2010-11 were in fact passed by it; or were passed by fibre at all. But if we count NBN Co greenfield estates under contract — neither passed or connected but scheduled for work in coming months — the number in November 2011 was about 8000."

"And, however we cut the numbers, it does not appear to be correct that NBN passed 75,000 greenfield lots prior to June 2011, which is what was apparently stated to shareholder ministers."

NBN Co clarified to ZDNet Australia that it had received 1188 applications from developers that cover 75,000 lots. This does not mean 75,000 had been passed.

On the company's financial position, delays to the roll-out meant that NBN Co was already behind its corporate plan published in December last year, Turnbull said, and instead of 58,000 premises passed, with 35,000 active by June 2011, NBN Co only had 18,243 premises passed and 622 active.

This would place a constraint on projected revenues for the company, according to Turnbull.

In light of payments made to Telstra and Optus to move customers over to the NBN and decommission the copper and hybrid-fibre coaxial networks, operational costs between 2010 and 2021 would be more likely to rise to $29 billion instead of $23 billion, he said.

Converting people from copper to fibre would also be more complex than NBN Co anticipates, according to the shadow minister.

"Well-sourced industry talk is that at Telstra's fibre roll-out in South Brisbane it is taking two technicians a joint half-day per premise to get services up and running. This is in addition to the costs of missed or rescheduled appointments, letter boxing and other ads to alert the community, and other co-ordination activities."

If the network roll-out becomes too complex, he said, NBN Co may choose to go for the areas where it is easier to roll out the NBN, rather than where it is needed in regional and rural Australia.

"One of my concerns is that as the roll-out confirms the NBN to be logistically daunting and financially untenable, NBN Co and the government will try to obscure this by focusing on the easiest areas, not those most in need," he said. "That would be a travesty of social justice from a party that so loudly claims to believe in it."

Turnbull's criticism comes as the ABC reports a couple in the regional Victorian town of Dereel prepare to fight a proposed tower being erected by NBN Co to deliver fixed-wireless services to the area. The couple claim to be concerned about the health effects of the tower; however, NBN Co has advised them that radiation levels are safe.

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