How Malcolm Turnbull missed his chance to fix the NBN

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By LAURIE PATTON | 26 September 2019

Internet access is now the most complained about telco service in Australia according to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman’s latest report. The state of our trouble-plagued NBN continues to see consumers heading to the authorities in the faint hope their broadband problems can be fixed. Alas, the future remains bleak for millions of NBN Co customers until the Government abandons a flawed set of technologies simply incapable of delivering 21st Century speeds.

Back in December 2016 I attended a fancy black tie dinner at which then prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was one of the guest speakers. Toward the end of the evening, having spotted me at a nearby table, Mr Turnbull beckoned me to join him in conversation. We’ve known each other for many years.

Not missing an opportunity I told him that his NBN was in big trouble. Actually, I used far more colourful language to describe this fetid project. However, I also said that there was a solution that should be adopted ASAP. “I need to know about this. Come and see me”, was the PM’s response.

Some weeks later after numerous attempts to break through his praetorian guard I was granted a meeting with his chief of staff Drew Clarke. Mr Clarke was accompanied by a policy advisor. At the time I was running Internet Australia, the peak NFP group representing the interests of Internet users.

I went through a well-rehearsed script explaining that the run-down Telstra copper network and the old Pay-TV cables being re-used by NBN Co simply weren’t up to scratch. In both cases the expectation that a fibre network would eventually replace them meant it had made no sense for Telstra (or Optus in the case of its Pay-TV cables) to bother with anything other than essential maintenance.

Around this time the industry was starting to talk seriously about fibre-to-the-driveway – otherwise known as fibre-to-the-curb (FTTC) by the American led NBN Co.

FTTC uses a short hop of copper wire from the footpath into the premises – with the bulk of the distance from the nearest Telstra exchange using fibre. Over that distance of copper reasonable speeds are currently possible, with new equipment coming onto the market that will eventually deliver even faster broadband. In time, depending on the demand for greater speeds, the line running into premises can be retrofitted with fibre at reasonable cost.

The point I made – loud and clear – was the closer it came to the 2020 deadline for completing the NBN roll out the more obviously flawed the use of these inferior technologies would become and the more complaints that would be made.

To be fair to the PM’s policy advisor, who listened attentively as I outlined the dire situation, there was a visible appearance of concern if not a slight case of panic. For his part though, Mr Clarke maintained his studied calm persona practised over decades as a senior public servant. I presume that little, if any, of my presentation made its way to the PM’s ears.

It is probably fair that I note here that Mr Clarke was the head of the communications department at the time the so-called Multi-Technology Mix (MTM) model was foisted on NBN Co following Tony Abbott’s infamous demand that Turnbull “demolish” the NBN.

I should also mention that after his short stint in the PM’s office Mr Clarke duly retired and took up a board position at NBN Co.

What a darn shame that nothing was done back then to save this vital infrastructure project from its current abysmal state of play.

Of course I wasn’t the only one telling the Government that things needed to change. Back in 2017 the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on the NBN effectively called on the Government to direct NBN Co to abandon the MTM model.

Neither side of politics said much about the NBN during their election campaigning earlier this year. Presumably, nobody was keen to make broadband an election issue for the simple reason that there’s now little that can be done to sort out the mess unless everyone agrees on a bipartisan solution. The project is so mired in controversy that it would be a brave minister who went it alone on a radical path to recovery.

Yet the fact is Australia is falling behind in the race to leverage the benefits – economic and social – of an emerging digitally-enabled global economy.

When Paul Fletcher became the communications minister I wrote to him pleading the case for bipartisan action. I’ve also encouraged his shadow, Michelle Rowland, to adopt a conciliatory approach and work with the Government. Fat chance I hear you say. Well maybe. But sooner or later we’ll reach the point where necessity overrides politics.

NBN Co is slowly going broke. It is borrowing around $21 billion from the Government just to complete the inferior MTM version. It has not budgeted the billions that will inevitably be required to replace the copper wire (FTTN) sections that make up around 30 percent of fixed-line services.

While it has been rolled out to most of the country only half the premises declared “ready for service” have so far actually been connected. In my case I have frankly said no thanks. I receive 110Mbps from my existing service and the replacement I’m being offered can only guarantee me 50Mbps (not that I believe that figure anyway).

And while 5G mobile will not make the NBN redundant – even the major telcos concede this – it will deliver speeds embarrassingly faster than about a third of NBN Co’s customers can even dream of receiving. This will further eat away at revenues which are already well below those needed to pull this turkey out of the oven before it is burnt to a crisp financially.

Laurie Patton was CEO / Executive Director of Internet Australia, the NFP peak body representing the interests of Internet users, from 2014-2017. He is a former journalist and media executive.