NBN numbers prove we need more numbers

Now that the updated NBN corporate plan is out, we have better numbers to inform public debate. Haters have jumped to conclusions, but if Conroy is smart, he’ll lift the NBN’s bushel to silence the critics.

It can't have come as a surprise to anybody that NBN Co would turn in an updated business plan with figures suggesting that its actual cost will be slightly higher than the projections made two years ago. This was as sure a bet as the green lighting of the second and third Hunger Games films.

So why all the hullabaloo ? Despite the business plan reporting a relatively modest 3.9 per cent increase in capital costs — and a 2.5 per cent drop in revenues due to a slower-than-projected ramp-up, thanks to the protracted Telstra negotiations — you'd think the National Broadband Network (NBN) was an unmitigated disaster in the vein of government outsourcing and the privatisation of Telstra.

We know this, because commentators like Andrew Bolt told us so. Bolt, an unapologetic conservative, passionately hates the NBN and its left-wing, socialist, tree-hugging, pink batts-apologising, electric car-driving, latte-sipping commie purveyors more than he hates Julia Gillard and everything that the Labor government has ever done, or tried to do, or workshopped on a whiteboard.

Words like "blowout" and "disaster" have been too easily seized upon by those who haven't bothered to take the time to entertain facts that run contrary to their own preconceptions.

Bolt authored not one, not two, not three, but at least five different blogs (count 'em: one, two , three, four, five) in the wake of the updated NBN Co plan — all of them harping on the supposed "blowout" brought to light in the updated business plan.

If you just read the headlines, rather than taking the time to actually read the corporate plan, you can understand his anger — sort of. Words like "blowout" and "disaster" have been too easily seized upon those who haven't bothered to take the time to entertain facts that run contrary to their own preconceptions.

Those with more ideologically moderate proclivities will have read the figures, thought for a moment, shrugged and then turned to the Olympics results.

For example, by FY2021, the updated corporate plan predicts, NBN Co will have passed 12.2 million premises and connected 8.5 million premises — 200,000 more than were budgeted for in the previous plan.

NBN Co is now planning to run fibre along 148,000km of roads, compared with 130,000km in the previous estimation; that's a 13.8 per cent increase. Physical distance covered by the GPON fibre-to-the-premise (FttP) technology has increased from 181,000km to 206,000km. That's also a 13.8 per cent increase.

Call me an apologist, but if NBN Co is now going to roll out 13.8 per cent more fibre than it was previously expecting to, and its costs have only increased by 3.9 per cent — well, doesn't that suggest that the company is actually on track to benefit from economies of scale that will drive the per-kilometre price of its fibre down? And don't those numbers largely negate the arguments of those who look at the numbers and nothing else?

I'm sure we can expect more of this as the NBN progresses; statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) suggest that Australia is building over 150,000 new dwellings every year, and each of these will need to be hooked up to the NBN, too.

That might even cost a bit more money than NBN Co anticipated. Will the louder members of the media jump on that as being yet another blowout?

After years of driving the NBN according to mushroom theory, Labor should boost transparency if it wants to engender voter patients.
(Backlit mushroom image by Eric Meyer, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Do we say that Medicare's budget has blown out because it is being extended every year as Australians pursue that financially inconvenient habit of popping out more and more babies? Do we complain that our Veterans' Affairs budget has blown out because our soldiers insist on growing old?

Proponents and opponents of the NBN can and will argue till the proverbial cows come home about what the numbers mean, and Bolt and many others (and I include the rabidly pro-NBN punters here, too) will continue to bend the numbers to suit their own particular perspectives and headline-grabbing odium.

Far from exposing some horrible conspiracy, I'd suggest that the most valuable thing about the corporate plan — apart from the fact that it confirms that the government still thinks it can deliver what it has promised — is that it represents a significant milestone in transparency.

Putting these figures out there has helped Stephen Conroy move the goalposts, reposition the debate, change the terms of engagement. Whatever idiom you prefer, Malcolm Turnbull will have to give up his habit of blithely quoting figures from the initial business plan that was formulated two years ago.

He'll have to work from this version from now on, and that could conceivably fuel a more honest debate. Because nature abhors a vacuum, and so too does telecoms policy.

If the NBN debate can be informed with current numbers, the release of the updated business plan should rightly mark a turning point in the whole NBN project — but it will require a bit of straight shooting by Conroy, and a commitment to honest debate rather than obfuscation on Turnbull's part.

There is an easy way to push the debate in this direction: Conroy should, as a matter of priority, instruct NBN Co to set up a website showing the exact numbers of premises passed; metres of fibre rolled out; numbers of live subscribers and what suburbs they're in; and the suburbs in which NBN Co roll-out crews are working on any given day.

Key metrics should be published clearly and updated no less than daily for all to see.

There should also be financially pegged metrics, such as the average cost per premise, cost per kilometre rolled out, cost of fibre versus cost of labour in that expenditure and so on.

These, and any other key metrics deemed relevant to the project, should be published clearly and updated no less than daily for all to see. Even Turnbull, who will no longer have to suffer the embarrassment of building his arguments against Labor's NBN on hopelessly out-of-date figures.

Improved transparency would benefit everybody involved in this debate — particularly a government that has responded to the constant barrage of criticism by burying new NBN information in tightly controlled, sporadic press releases. That's not the way to win over philosophical enemies.

My call for transparency is hardly unprecedented; governments do it all the time, highlighting how much particular road projects or council works are costing. It's a token gesture, but it goes a long way to improving the feeling of community buy-in — and the community's willingness to show patience for an outcome that they can see, feel and touch.

Would that Australia could afford the NBN the same patience. In a populace accustomed to a debate marked by unceasing spin and partisan point making, it's a big ask — and a somewhat unlikely one, given the maelstrom of debate that awaits us all in the lead-up to next year's election. However, a move by Labor to put the right numbers in all of our hands would counteract the narkiness, and benefit observers on both sides of the NBN equation.

Would better numbers take the acrimony out of the NBN debate? Or did the updated business plan provide all the information you needed to make up your mind about the project?


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