How Malcolm Turnbull missed out on 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 largely incapable of delivering 21st Century speeds and a reliable service.

Back in December 2016 I attended a dinner at which then prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was one of the other guests. Toward the end of the evening Mr Turnbull beckoned me to join him in conversation.

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 then 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, so I had the benefit of advice from some of the country’s leading broadband experts.

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. 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 for many years.

NBN Co has now dumped the Optus Pay-TV network altogether and is spending big on the remediation of large sections of the Telstra cabling. In my area and many others they are ripping it out.

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. This is the solution I had come to recommend. I pointed out that FTTC wasn’t available in 2013 when Tony Abbott forced Turnbull to “demolish” Labor’s fibre-based NBN and so it made sense to embrace it now.

FTTC uses a short hop of copper wire from the footpath into the premises – with the rest 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 much greater speeds, the line running into the 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 inferior technologies would become.

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 look 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. If he didn’t know the proposal being considered by the Government was inherently unsuitable surely someone in his department must have? Plenty of external experts could have given him a ‘heads up’ if he’d sought their advice.

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. Even the National Party member voted with Labor.

Neither side of politics said much about the NBN during their most recent election campaigns. 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. Whereas we were once 30th in global Internet speed rankings we have dropped to around the 60 mark. Imagine what would happen if we fell that much in the Olympic medal tally.

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 flawed 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 around two thirds of 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 NBN 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 many NBN Co 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.


1. Another parliamentary inquiry is currently being held into the NBN. TelSoc, of which I recently became vice-president, lodged a submission prepared by a working group of highly qualified industry experts. It recommends a review of the state of the project and the development of a long term strategy to fix the NBN. Unless the federal government takes notice of these recommendations millions of consumers are destined to continue suffering second rate broadband for years to come.

2. With the June 2020 deadline for completion of the NBN rollout ominously close there are rumours that customers originally slated for a fixed-line service are being bundled onto the quicker-to-install but inferior satellite or fixed wireless networks.

3. NBN Co has so far spent $51 billion (including the $21 billion loan from the taxpayers it has no prospect of repaying). It will cost another $10 billion or more to replace FTTN. That was always part of the Coalition’s plan, although NBN Co conveniently ignores this now. The Government’s advisors thought (wrongly) that NBN Co could fund the rebuild from ongoing revenues. Of the 11 million premises now passed only about 7 million are signed up and paying money. A large percentage of customers are signing up to low speed low yield packages because NBN Co cannot deliver them fast broadband. Telstra has stopped selling its top tier speed packages to people on FTTN because NBN Co wasn’t delivering what they were ordering. In New Zealand they stayed with fibre and reduced per premises costs by 40 percent. We would have achieved the same. They are rolling out fibre to 89 percent of the country. Around the world 80 percent of new broadband networks are using fibre.

Laurie Patton is a former CEO / Executive Director of Internet Australia, the NFP peak body representing the interests of Internet users, and is the current Vice President of TelSoc. He is a former journalist and media executive.