Turnbull's tone change and the demise of the big red NBN button

Free of the hyperbole that goes with running a three-year election campaign, Turnbull's attitude to the NBN already seems very different.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Under Labor, major National Broadband Network (NBN) announcements were usually at NBN Co's high-rise office in North Sydney. There was usually a slideshow presentation, and the minister and the CEO were on hand. If it wasn't there, it was out at some regional location where the minister and the local Labor member were there to push a big red button that would "launch" the NBN in that area.

Image: NBN Co

In stark contrast came new Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull's first press conference on Tuesday. It was held in the generic Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices in the Sydney CBD, and was accompanied by a short press release with a statement of what is expected of NBN Co in the coming months, and 20 minutes of questions.

Part of this is Turnbull's plan to run NBN Co as a private business in a no-nonsense kind of way, and part of it is Prime Minister Tony Abbott's reported control that he is currently taking over his ministers making appearances in the media. Turnbull is only the second minister to make a major announcement to the public since the new government was sworn in, following the launch of Operation Sovereign Borders by Immigrations Minister Scott Morrison.

Turnbull says he is now looking to take politics out of the NBN, conveniently after spending three years making the project highly political. That tends to be the hallmark hypocrisy of any new government — quickly wanting to put a stop to the opposition behaviour that helped it ultimately get elected.

Well, that and ultimately adopting the behaviour of the government that it was once so critical of.

That's where Turnbull's change in tone is interesting. It is clear that in the few weeks since the election, Turnbull's attitude towards the NBN and its staff has changed. Turnbull's arguments with outgoing NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley during NBN committee hearings were infamous. In Quigley, he saw a man who was the political mouthpiece for the project he had originally been tasked to destroy.

Image: Josh Taylor/ZDNet

But now, Turnbull seems to be giving Quigley, the board, and NBN executives a pass, seeking to shift most of the blame for the problems within the project back to the former government.

He has asked for the board to offer their resignations, and in all but one case, he has received them. However, he has said that he might not accept them, and it is expected that as many as two of the members will stay on the board.

There has been nothing mentioned about the fate of the close to 3,000 people directly employed by NBN Co, either. No doubt there will be some redundancies, or "efficiencies" as they tend to be termed when it comes to government, after the 60-day review of NBN Co is completed once Turnbull appoints the new board decided by Cabinet on October 4.

Turnbull joked in his press conference on Tuesday that although he is not the chief executive for NBN Co, the buck stops with him. So any perceived problem with the NBN is now his problem, and it's best to get the staff onside now.

Turnbull painted the NBN Co employees as having been stuck executing government policy for fibre to the premises for 93 percent of the population, and that is no doubt the case, given that the last draft corporate plan included an alternative policy to speed up the NBN rollout in multi-dwelling units by having fibre to the basement. After consideration by Cabinet, this was dumped, and NBN Co had to continue looking for ways to get into every single apartment with fibre instead.

Interestingly, Turnbull's focus for VDSL in the press conference related directly to servicing apartments and areas that otherwise would be served by fixed wireless, and, for the time being, fibre will keep being rolled out to the premises.

Given the zealousness that infects the NBN debate, it is hardly surprising that everything seems to have a religious overtone. Turnbull said that he isn't going to be dogmatic and force the Coalition's pre-election policy for the NBN onto NBN Co, but instead would listen to what NBN Co's review finds, and be technology agnostic.

He doesn't want the employees telling him what he wants to hear, just the truth, he has said. And then in the next breath, he said he is reluctant to release the — now leaked — draft corporate plan for 2013 on the grounds that he simply could not trust the costings. Mainly, he seemed concerned that the cost per premises to pass in the current build drop method is now at between AU$1,100 and AU$1,400. If you include the customer connect — that is, the cost when a customer requests a service — it is between AU$2,200 and AU$2,500. A fair bit lower than the projection in the Coalition's policy of AU$3,400 per premises.

These will be the costs to keep an eye on when the review is completed. That will likely be the determining factor in how many more premises get fibre than the Coalition currently plans, assuming Turnbull has had a true change of heart and accepts the expertise of NBN Co.

Of course, time will be of the essence. While the cost might be lower than expected, Turnbull has also promised to get everyone up to 25Mbps by the end of 2016. If there is more fibre than originally planned, that doesn't give NBN Co a lot of time to get the job done, meaning fibre to the node might be used more to get the job done quicker.

We should know pretty soon whether that is the case. Turnbull has now ordered NBN Co to provide weekly updates on the number of premises passed, the number of premises that can connect, and the number of premises on the NBN Co.

That goes to the core of how Turnbull has not only changed his tone on the NBN, but is now also seeking to change the whole discussion around the NBN.

Who needs big red buttons when you have weekly updates?

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