NBN delay attacks couched in impatience

Council areas given the chance to access the NBN seem to want it — and yesterday. But the NBN isn't going to be built overnight, and it really can't get started in earnest until it gets a disinterested Telstra to sign on the dotted line. Yet this hasn't stopped critics from attacking every delay as a failure of the NBN — even when they're contributing to those delays. Is this unfair criticism, or a fair cop by NBN Co?

Imagine a mate asks you over to help him carry a new couch into his lounge room — but that his lounge room turns to be up two flights of narrow stairs. As you grunt and swear trying to push his three-seater against the pull of gravity, his kids jump onto it. All six of them. And bring the dog. And pelt you with lollies. And whack your hands with their cricket bats. Through it all, your mate sits at the top of the stairs, claiming a bad back, drinking a cold beer and urging you to hurry up so he can watch the footy.

Given the recent hail of criticism and complaints about the NBN's mechanics, this is about the best analogy I can come up with to describe the current status of the network roll-out.

Even as strong demand for the NBN suggests people are getting used to its promise and can't wait to get it, its opponents point to every small delay as a sign of its fundamental incompetence: witness Malcolm Turnbull's recent attack on the NBN delays after NBN Co's claimed attempt to reduce the cost of the roll-out was revealed. This is the same Turnbull who, a few weeks ago, was happy to squander scarce House time arguing there was no need to rush the NBN. This is a common theme from Turnbull, but it loses something when he and go-for-the-jugular party leader Tony Abbott are contributing to those delays.

(New Orleans Bookshop Couch and Globe image by Emily Baron, CC2.0)

Now, we hear Telstra may not even put its proposed agreement with NBN Co to shareholders until its annual general meeting in November. This represents the latest in a string of delays that has pushed out Telstra's time frame by many, many months — and I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying that the NBN would be moving a whole lot faster if the agreement with Telstra were finalised.

Like a chauffeur waiting impatiently for a diva primping herself yet another time even though she's already an hour late for her concert, NBN Co has no choice, really, but to wait on Telstra to decide that it is ready to present the agreement to its shareholders. Some early NBN residents have complained about overhead NBN cables, but it can't wholeheartedly start most of its roll-out until it can get access to Telstra's ducts — and Telstra is certainly taking its time in making that happen. Critics who complain the network isn't built yet, might as well be bagging Ian Thorpe for falling short in his swimming comeback before he's even gotten his togs on.

I am reminded of the scene in The Princess Bride where the Dread Pirate Roberts faces off with the giant Fezzik:

"We face each other as God intended — sportsmanlike," the giant says. "No tricks, no weapons, skill against skill alone."

"You mean, you'll put down your rock and I'll put down my sword and we'll try and kill each other like civilised people?" the pirate asks. "I think the odds are slightly in your favour at hand fighting."

"It's not my fault being the biggest and the strongest," Fezzik responds as Roberts repeatedly and unsuccessfully tries to pound him. "I don't even exercise."

"Look, are you just fiddling around with me or what?" Roberts asks.

"I just want you to feel you're doing well," the giant asks. "I hate for people to die embarrassed."

David Thodey's Fezzik, who has precious little interest in making life easier for NBN Co, is working along similar lines. Stephen Conroy, who recently granted Telstra a 90-day extension to complete its delayed separation plans, must have been steaming when he read about the company's megabucks AFL content deal. One wonders whether Telstra's lawyers could have finalised the separation and NBN Co details if they had been tasked with those projects, rather than burying the papers in their inboxes and focusing instead on stitching up new revenue sources for the company.

Even as it awaits Telstra's pleasure, NBN Co cops the brunt of a rising tide of discontent from those who variously hate the project or hate the company for depriving them of it. No sooner had NBN Co announced plans to fibre over 11,000 premises across seven more areas of the state, than Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (TCCI) representatives were complaining that the NBN Co roll-out is bypassing built-up areas and business centres to — gasp — bring fibre to households that currently have quite deficient internet services.

These business groups are, in effect, complaining that the NBN isn't cherry-picking the most profitable areas in which to roll out its network first — yet a key part of the network's brief is to bring broadband to areas that profit-minded telcos have ignored. The rest of us just have to be a little bit patient, which hasn't stopped councils in more built-up areas lobbying NBN Co to prioritise their areas for early roll-out (Wollongong is the most recent example).

It seems everybody wants a piece of the NBN — and wants it yesterday. Citizens' groups complaining about the NBN's structure might as well be complaining because a new highway doesn't have individual off-ramps for each street in the area. It's technically possible, but, as always, traffic and civil engineers need to balance the common good with available resources and efficient design. The resulting infrastructure may not please everybody, but one has to believe there were good reasons for it being the way it is.

Nonetheless, NBN Co's olive branch — the latest in what has become quite a bouquet, plucked off what appears to be NBN Co's massive Conciliatory Tree, has been to announce a policy that will allow councils to contribute to the cost of a fibre roll-out to extend the NBN into sparsely populated areas. It's basically offering to facilitate the people's NBN, but sceptics have already descended, warning that the roll-out could cost 10 times NBN Co's rate if done on a piecemeal basis.

Business groups are, in effect, complaining that the NBN isn't cherry-picking the most profitable areas in which to roll out its network first — yet a key part of the network's brief is to bring broadband to areas that profit-minded telcos have ignored.

Let's not forget those who have recently been complaining that the NBN won't bring fibre to 100 per cent of premises, and those who attack the NBN because they don't like the colour of the in-house network termination unit (NTU). Or those who complained about a 14-site Point of Interconnect (PoI) model, then complained when NBN Co took some time to adjust it north of 100 sites.

It's one thing to attack NBN Co over one piddling point or another, but do we still have the right to complain when the company adjusts its schedule to accommodate the additional scope necessary to address the thing that has been complained about? NBN Co has been nothing but accommodating, copping criticism at every step even as it works to make progress in what is, until the Telstra agreement is signed, effectively neutral gear.

Indeed, the disruptive blither around the NBN has become so bad that NBN committee witnesses like Huawei Technologies spokesperson Jeremy Mitchell are, quite reasonably, calling for a bipartisan approach so we can, if you'll forgive the Gillard-ism, move forward together. Still others are arguing that the NBN has already tripped itself up and is on the way to extinction.

I've already appealed to the Liberals' sensibilities in suggesting they should focus on shaping, and not simply opposing, the NBN. Scrutiny is important and a fundamentally flawed project will fail, but constant whinging about delays outside of NBN Co's responsibility diminish the whole situation. This stuff is complicated, and the project cannot be judged until it is allowed to find its proper speed. Get the kids off the couch, put away their cricket bats, and help carry that couch up the stairs and you might have a chance of getting it into position before the first bounce.

Is the NBN taking too long? If so, why? And what — if anything — can the government do to hurry Telstra up?


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