NBN may be biggest infrastructure debacle

By LAURIE PATTON | 17 November 2017

Back when I was CEO of Internet Australia, the not-for-profit peak body representing the interests of Internet users, we attracted criticism via comments published in The Australian newspaper that resulted in legal action.

Some people associated with the NBN had apparently not taken kindly to IA’s campaign for #BetterBroadband. A campaign that highlighted flawed technology choices currently leaving many NBN customers pretty unimpressed.

In one article IA was described as “the nation’s most vocal internet group”, which is an epithet I proudly accepted. Other assertions were not so generous, including a suggestion we had made “exaggerated claims” while pursuing our efforts to have NBN Co change course.

All IA’s statements were backed by the collective expertise of the board of directors and members, many of whom are acknowledged world leaders in the information and communications technology field. Other recognised experts have made the same observations. A member survey found 80 percent did not support the government’s current NBN strategy.

At the heart of the issue is this: rather than modern optical fibre as originally planned, NBN Co is rolling out a network re-using old copper wires — technology known as fibre-to-the-node, or FTTN.

When I joined IA in 2014, the board’s policy favoured returning to a full-fibre NBN. This remains very much its preferred position and what’s occurring in 80 percent of new broadband rollouts globally.

However,  IA later resolved to call for fibre-to-the-driveway, or as NBN Co prefers to call it fibre-to-the-curb. IA’s experts maintain this is a suitable interim option because it can be upgraded later as needed. At that time, neither the government nor the opposition had embraced this new technology. Both are now showing signs of moving in that direction.

In a significant development, the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on the NBN published its first report following an extensive review of the NBN rollout. The committee effectively called on the government to direct NBN Co to abandon FTTN.

The way we’re heading now, whoever is in office in 2020 will have to deal with our biggest ever national infrastructure debacle. NBN Co will owe the government about $19 billion, which it is having to borrow to complete the rollout, and within five to 10 years will have to fund an expensive replacement of FTTN. No one seems to know how many billions this will cost. It’s not provided for in the NBN Co business plan.

In reality, our NBN won’t be completed until everyone has decent broadband. This will have taken a great deal longer than either Labor or the Coalition initially predicted. It will also have been far more expensive in the long run.

But worst of all, it will have meant unsatisfactory experiences for too many people and too many businesses — for far too long.

IA has regularly called for a bipartisan rethink and an agreed plan to solve the looming crisis facing NBN Co. It has warned both sides of politics that business-as-usual is not a viable option.

IA has been around since 1996, originally known as ISOC-AU. It’s a highly regarded chapter of the global Internet Society, which is the largest group of people and organisations committed to promoting and defending the internet. In recent years it has transformed from what has been described as “a largely invisible and silent organisation” or a “club for geeks” into a widely acknowledged source of expert advice and public advocacy.

It’s a shame that during my time at the helm IA’s warnings concerning the NBN were not heeded.

(Laurie Patton was CEO/Executive Director of Internet Australia from 2014-2017. This article, slightly updated, first appeared in The Australian as part of an out-of-court settlement of a defamation action.)