More broadband porkies. Buying an NBN pig in a poke

By LAURIE PATTON | 20 October 2019

To quote veteran IT journalist Sam Varghese, NBN Co’s latest attempt to put lipstick on a pig – the animal in this case being the network it is building and the make-up in question being speed – goes one step further than the ‘alternative facts’ which its former chief executive, Bill Morrow, used to dish out

The spin doctors at NBN Co are understandably annoyed at media reports reminding people that Australia has dropped from 30th to around 60th in global broadband speed rankings. So they came up with a novel solution. They made up their own numbers. The trouble is nobody in the IT world seems to believe them.

Indeed most were still trying to get over communications minister Paul Fletcher’s valiant attempt to outdo his predecessor Mitch Fifield in bending reality to fit the Government’s NBN talking points – telling an incredulous audience at a recent conference the NBN “has been a massive turnaround exercise – after we inherited a colossal mess”.

I think it’s fair to say the most widely accepted version of NBN history these days is that former prime minister Tony Abbott’s instruction to his communications minister Malcolm Turnbull to ‘destroy’ the NBN is what created the mess we have now.

Never-the-less, according to the NBN Co commissioned (and paid for) report “Australia is projected to reach the top 10 OECD countries for internet equality by 2021 (assuming all other OECD countries hold constant at their 2016 figures)”.

Yep, so long as you compare where the NBN might be in two years’ time against the performance of other countries five years earlier you can conjure a great tale of success. It’s a case of ‘never mind the quality, feel the width‘.

Back to Mr Varghese, who noted with no shortage of contempt that parts of the report were quoted verbatim in news reports while only some had “done a cursory examination of the report and called it for what it is, a report that draws conclusions based on extraordinary suppositions”. His iTWire article is well worth reading so I won’t attempt to summarise all the points it makes. However here are two little gems.

The company that undertook the work for NBN Co is not a technology specialist. “AlphaBeta is a strategy, economics and data analytics firm… AlphaBeta specialises in combining advanced analytical techniques and innovative data to generate new insights and fresh perspectives on the challenges facing business and government.

So why didn’t NBN Co engage one of the many more technically qualified consulting firms one might ask? You can’t blame AlphaBeta for taking the money, but you could wonder why they got the gig.

For one, the report claims that since NBN speeds are unreliable – which nobody would contest – the speed that needs to be counted when computing Australia’s rank in the world is the speed that your Internet service provider sells to you.

Given how many NBN customers have complained to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman about not receiving the speeds they paid for that seems a bold assertion.

As I’ve observed before neither party had much to say about the NBN during the last federal election campaign. But sooner or later we’ll need somebody to do something or we’ll fall even further behind other comparable countries. No amount of NBN Co commissioned research reports will take away the fact that signing up to the NBN is like buying a pig in a poke.

When the Chifley Government announced the Snowy Hydro Scheme then opposition leader, Robert Menzies, attacked the idea in a manner that would have made Tony Abbott proud. But when he became prime minister he did the biggest about-face in Australian political history and embraced it with equal gusto.

How ironic it is that Mr Abbott didn’t do a Menzies when he took over from Kevin Rudd and back the construction of the most vital piece of communications technology since the overland telegraph was replaced with a ubiquitous nationwide telephone system.

Ah, those were the days of real nation building – when that term actually meant something and wasn’t simply a recurring theme in comedic dramas like the ABC’s Utopia.

Unless the Government and the Opposition can agree on a bipartisan solution pretty soon the NBN will be remembered as our greatest infrastructure debacle of the last 100 years. It’s running massively over-budget, it’s slowly going broke and it simply will not be finished on schedule in my opinion.


NBN Co released the report at a conference in the Netherlands. No guessing how many jokes about you-know-what that prompted.

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