NBN's legacy makers face uphill battle

Both Simon Hackett and Bill Morrow have spoken of joining NBN Co to make a difference, but will politics get in their way?

Undoubtedly in Simon Hackett and Bill Morrow, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has found two of the most passionate people in the industry to appoint to NBN Co, and both are keen to leave their mark on the telecommunications landscape in Australia. The question is: Will Turnbull let them?

The appointment of Internode founder Simon Hackett to the NBN Co board was broadly welcomed by the industry and the public. Although Hackett had been highly critical of the NBN in the past, he was seen as an impartial and highly knowledgeable technology advocate with ideas that would help the implementation of the government's project.

Vodafone Australia CEO Bill Morrow is also widely respected in the industry, but his appointment to the role of NBN Co CEO was greeted much more cynically by members of the public, as the executive struggles to shake off the remnants of Vodafone's negative branding in Australia that came as a result of the company's network issues years before he ever came to Australia.

Unlike a number of the other recent appointments to NBN Co since the election, the two men have spoken openly about their decision to move to NBN Co as being one about leaving a legacy in Australia. Morrow told journalists late last year that he had grown to love Australia in his time at Vodafone, and joining NBN Co was him doing his part to give something back to the country.

"I'm at an age where I want to leave a legacy, and those things are very important in my life," he said.

In a speech Hackett gave in Adelaide prior to flying out to his first NBN Co board meeting in November, he said he wanted to be "a good ancestor". He said that he would be "a bit sad" about leaving the company he founded, but he believed his 20 years of experience would allow him to produce "more social equity" through NBN Co.

"I happen to believe that that next big utility, that next big way of connecting to our homes and our businesses beyond power, water, gas, and sewerage — that next set of 'pipes' — can be tremendously important to us if they are available to everyone, if they work properly, and if they cost the same for everyone. They're actually things that have a social equity," he said.

"So I care a lot about that, and so I'm devoting the next few years of my life to trying to make that environment better, precisely in the hope that the National Broadband Network can be a part of the 'ancestry' of this country in its future, that's a positive one for all of us. It lets us do new things in our future that weren't possible in our past."

Since then, NBN Co's strategic review has been released, conveniently confirming the Coalition's claims before the election : Labor's NBN will cost more than expected, will take longer, and, by the way, we should reuse the HFC networks and build more fibre-to-the-node instead.

The review also found that NBN Co staff spoke of "living in a political and media fishbowl", and that this has adversely impacted the work conducted by the company. Given the number of reviews and committees into the NBN, Senate and Budget Estimates hearings, and the announcement of the government's plans for the rollout of the NBN, it's clear that this isn't going to change any time soon.

Particularly if NBN Co is going to live up to Turnbull's promise that the company will be more transparent than it was under Labor.

Most of the anger over the project has been directed at Turnbull and NBN Co executive chair Ziggy Switkowski, but Hackett already managed to upset quite a few of the devoted fibre advocates when he took to defending the proposal to use the existing HFC networks for the NBN instead of fibre to the premises. Morrow will likely also take much of the heat off of Switkowski once he sits in the CEO chair from March, as Quigley did during his tenure as the CEO.

But Hackett's profile and continued public engagement over the NBN will likely see him continue to face scrutiny over his role in the network.

The difficulty the two men face is between doing what they believe to be the right thing for the NBN, versus what the government wants and what the public wants. The three will not often cross over.

NBN Co has already recommended that the project be altered to meet the Coalition's policy alternative, and unless the cost-benefit analysis being undertaken at the moment comes back saying fibre is the only choice, and Turnbull then chooses to accept that advice over the recommendations of NBN Co, then the Coalition's policy will be implemented in 2015 regardless of whether Hackett and Morrow think it is the best choice, not to mention what the public is in favour of.

Will the men try to convince the government to adopt the option that the public overwhelmingly wants, or will they just follow government orders and go quietly into the night?

Either situation seems doubtful. Morrow and Hackett have the task of not only building the best network they can, in the limited confines within the set government policy, but also the task of selling to the public why they can be proud of the work that they're doing at NBN Co at the same time.

It is something that the former Labor government always struggled to do, even when the public was shown to be majority in favour of the network. As iiNet's chief regulatory officer Steve Dalby said yesterday , neither Labor nor the Coalition have properly articulated why they're building the NBN. Although Hackett says he is not a businessman, both he and Morrow will be much better equipped at selling why the NBN is worth building.

That task will take much longer, however, and will require the NBN under the Coalition government to start delivering what they promised before either Hackett or Morrow can begin to see any sort of legacy left on Australia's telecommunications landscape.