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No NBN fate but what NBN Co makes

With Telstra's network available and all the boxes ticked around regulatory reform and competition approvals, NBN Co has now set its rather ambitious targets and has only itself to blame if — or when, as the case may be — it fails to meet them.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

No matter how you feel about the NBN, you have to give it to Labor: they know how to make it look like they're doing something. And yet, as the NBN kicks into overdrive with this week's announcement of the company's three-year plan, the ambitious targets the party has announced seem almost destined to make liars out of it. The real question is: will anybody care?

The numbers speak for themselves, really: 3.5 million properties to be passed by NBN roll-out crews, in around 1500 communities the length and breadth of Australia, within the next three years. That's a huge number, and it had to be: in order for the project to be completed by 2022 as has been mooted, NBN Co needs to ramp up quickly and keep its breakneck run rate for the next 10 years.


NBN Co has set ambitious goals for itself; now only it will decide its fate (until the election, that is). (Screenshot by David Braue, ZDNet Australia)

A few easy calculations show the scope of this challenge. To install 1.17 million services per year, NBN Co will need to connect 3196 NBN services per day, every day of the year including weekends. Exclude weekends (which involve expensive overtime) and the end-of-year industry shut-down, and you've only got 251 working days per year — which will mean installing 4648 services per day, day in and day out (for the purposes of these numbers I have ignored the 28,000-odd properties where the NBN is already installed).

Assume, optimistically perhaps, that it takes an hour per house to install an NBN service; a crew will therefore be able to install, say, eight services per 7-to-5 workday. Factor in the number of cases where something will go wrong — a resident will be away with a locked gate, flooding will prevent works on that day, team members are sick, consent has not yet been gained so the team has to come back later, or even because a nest of rare possums has installed itself in a Telstra duct and can't be touched — and it's probably safe to revise this downward to an average of six services connected per day, per installation crew.

To keep up with the average run rate and install 4648 services per day ... that's going to require the kind of military efficiency and good fortune that is rarely associated with government projects.

Therefore, to keep up with the average run rate and install 4648 services per day, NBN Co will have to be managing 775 different installation crews around the country. Each of those crews will spend the next 18 months installing services in each one of the communities announced yesterday, then move on to the neighbouring community for the next 18 months.

That's doable, but it's going to require a lot of new, trained workers and the kind of military efficiency and good fortune that is rarely associated with government projects. Throw in the unknowns — potential planning issues, hostile residents and the little matter of the looming election that could throw a huge spanner in the works — and there is a great deal of risk around the project.

Labor, of course, knows this better than anybody, but with the election looming and no obstacles in its way for the next 18 months, it has no choice but to ramp up NBN Co's operations and push hell-for-leather to build and sustain momentum. And if Labor fulfils many pundits' expectations by losing the election next year, it's fair to say NBN Co has zero chance of reaching its target. Even if the Coalition ultimately performed its much-vaunted cost-benefit analysis and found the FTTP project was the best way forward — and they would, if only because there are so many additional costs involved in discontinuing the current roll-out — the intervening delays would sink the time frame announced this week.

But in the long term, it may not matter that Labor has bitten off way more than it can chew: Australians of all stripes are rushing to the NBN Co availability guide to find out if they're going to be among the NBN blessed (I, sadly, am not; are you?); will they care if they have to wait a bit longer?

If the roll-out has fallen behind targets by the time the election comes, Malcolm Turnbull will be all over it; having utterly failed in every other attempt to discredit and interfere with the project, he now has little choice but to sit back and watch as NBN Co moves on outside of his control. His statement after Labor's announcement confirms that he has all but given up any hope of influencing the project — and expects only that voters hold Labor to its ability to deliver on its promises.

Having utterly failed to discredit and interfere with the project, Turnbull has little choice ... The Liberals now have to sit back and let the NBN sink or swim on its own power.

That, for once, sounds entirely reasonable. With no external obstacles in its path, NBN Co now has to show Australians that it can actually deliver what it has promised. Until we get near to the election, we can expect a quieter discussion around the NBN debate, with inevitable hand-wringing over take-up and progress as the company releases the occasional update on roll-out numbers. Voters will decide whether they're happy with the project's progress or not, and we can all pick up the debate from there.

In the meantime, I have no idea whether Malcolm Turnbull will get NBN services into his own house: part of his electorate got it, and part did not. Yet one has to wonder: if he's in the green area, would he refuse the service on moral grounds? Or just sign up and make the most of it, perhaps calling it "research" to plan his future opposition? (and, maybe, watch a bit of on-demand West Wing)?

Either way, the Liberals now have to sit back and — as I suggested they do way back in late 2010 — let the NBN sink or swim on its own power. There is no indication yet that it may end up drowning, but whether it can power into the election with its head well above water now rests squarely on the shoulders of Mike Quigley and his merry band of NBN installers — who will, hopefully, be coming soon to a neighbourhood near you.

What do you think? Can NBN Co reach its targets? Is Labor setting itself up for failure? Will the public care? And — most important of all — did you win in the NBN lottery?

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