NBN Co's figure fudging is a disservice

NBN Co's continual misrepresentation of its own targets does nothing but give its opponents ammo in the ongoing NBN war.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

NBN Co's announcement yesterday that it had reached the targets for premises passed by fibre by the end of June should have been a high point for the company. Instead, it has found itself defending its methodology after again seemingly redefining its own measurements and targets.

NBN Co scraped through its revised target released in March, reaching 163,500 brownfields premises and 44,000 greenfields premises with fibre as of June 30. The goal had been 155,000 to 175,000 brownfields premises, and between 35,000 and 45,000 greenfields.

This means that there is now a total of 207,500 premises that should be able connect to the NBN fibre — except that is not really the case.

NBN Co has been counting premises in that total that cannot yet connect to the NBN. This includes multi-dwelling units (MDUs) that don't yet have the fibre in their building, as well as office blocks and other similar premises. It's been estimated that as many as 55,000 premises included in NBN Co's total can't actually connect to the NBN yet.

NBN Co's defence is that it had always counted those premises in the total, and that this is an internationally recognised standard. The Fibre to the Home Council doesn't seem to agree with that definition, stating on its website that "homes passed" is the potential number of premises that the operator has the capability to connect in a service area, and does not include premises that cannot be connected without "further installation of substantial cable plant, such as feeder and distribution cables, to reach the area in which a potential new subscriber is located".

NBN Co's own corporate plan also seems to disagree with that definition. On page 36, NBN Co states that a premises is deemed passed when "the shared network and service elements are installed, accepted, commissioned, and ready for service, which then enabled an end user to order and purchase a broadband service from their choice of retail service provider".

At the very least, NBN Co should reveal the total number of premises that could today order a service on the NBN and get connected.

The company also seems to be misleading the public over its target for premises able to get fixed-wireless services by the end of June. The original target was 70,000, but NBN Co missed this by a long shot, only getting 27,300 at the end of June.

When asked about this yesterday, NBN Co told ZDNet that it revised the figure down to 37,000 in March, when it also revised down the fibre figure. This, however, did not appear in the press release, and no journalists seem to have been informed of the writedown.

NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley was specifically asked four times by Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham in a Budget Estimates hearing at the end of May whether NBN Co would reach 70,000 premises with the fixed-wireless network, and Quigley did not seek to correct the figure.

"So you do not expect to make 70,000, but you do not have a revised target?" Birmingham asked.

"We do not know. Until we have finished the counting — in fact, this is one of the things I guess we have learned in this, senator," Quigley said.

"We probably should just say that some of the things are very difficult to predict. This is the plan of what we going to do. I think we are putting up, largely, the number of towers that we intended to put up in this period. The question is: How many premises can you end up covering?"

There is a good chance that these figures will be some of the very last rollout stats we are given prior to the federal election. NBN Co should have known that the results would have been keenly analysed by the industry, journalists, and the public. By attempting to mask the legitimate and often unavoidable difficulties that NBN Co is having with constructing a network of this size, the company is making it look like it has something to hide.

That is arguably a disservice to the government, the public, and those die-hard supporters of the NBN. Opponents of the current project were going to criticise the figures regardless of what the result actually was, but how can the public have trust that NBN Co is doing the job the government has tasked it to if the company continually insists on massaging the numbers to look better than they actually are?

If we're to have confidence in NBN Co's rollout metrics going forward, the company should release the exact definitions of the terms it uses, and then stick to them.

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