Wednesday, 25 May 2016 15:15

Fifield: NBN hits 1 million users ‘ahead of time, below budget’; IA wants more transparency Featured

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Smack bang during the election cycle, Australia’s Federal Minister for Communications has some "smashing' good news regarding the NBN, while IA wants more transparency.

Senator Mitch Fifield has triumphantly announced that NBN Co’s 2016 connection targets "have been smashed two months ahead of schedule as the network connects its one millionth paying customer".

It’s a shame we’re not celebrating 10 million customers connected, but one million’s a milestone clearly worth rejoicing over, especially seeing how many years it has taken to get here.

Fifield’s media release states that "this one millionth customer milestone delivers on the Turnbull Coalition team’s plan and the hard work of NBN Co’s management, 5000 employees and thousands of construction contractors".

We are then informed that NBN Co "has consistently met its operational milestones over the past eight quarters and has already exceeded its corporate plan revenue goal". (Corporate Plan PDF Link)

In less than a year, Fifield boasts that NBN Co "has more than doubled its coverage from 1.16 million premises last July to more than 2.5 million today".

More trumpets are sounded with the statement that "the Coalition’s management of the NBN will see the network completed six to eight years sooner than under Labor’s plan and at around $30 billion less cost".

Naturally, in the midst of a fiercely competitive election campaign with six weeks to go, it is no surprise to see Fifield state that "the Turnbull Coalition government is delivering on its plan. Compare this to the previous Labor government that proved incapable of delivering on its NBN plan".

Of course, most people know the Turnbull Coalition government by its real name, the Liberal and National Coalition, but just as NBN Co changed its name to nbn for no good reason, save to presumably enrich a graphic designer and a printing company with a few extra dollars, Australia’s Federal Government clearly decided a bit of a name change might be a useful thing, too.

After a bit of self-praise, Fifield then makes it clear that, "under the former Labor Government, the NBN rollout was so badly managed that by mid- 2013, the rollout had fallen 85% short of the planned target and NBN contractors had downed tools in four states".

Naturally this whitewashes some of the promises of connectivity the Coalition was supposed to have delivered on by now, but with things reframed as politicians are well accustomed to doing, we are told that "under Labor, $6.5 billion was spent over four years to connect just 51,000 NBN users. Under the Turnbull Government’s faster rollout plan, the NBN is connecting up more than 60,000 homes a month".

And so we arrive at the statement that, "as at 19 May there were 1,003,474 paying customers".

For those who are curious, the weekly NBN rollout tally is available here

Interestingly, all of this information is coincidentally released just after Internet Australia made its call for "greater transparency" so that NBN Co "avoids a crisis of confidence".

Quite what Internet Australia (IA) will now say following this news is to be seen, but it has "called on the management of NBN Co to commit to greater transparency in the light of the release of information that has caused people to question the company’s performance".

IA’s chief executive, Laurie Patton said: “Irrespective of how it was released, information now in the public domain raises serious issues that need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. There is a crisis of confidence in NBN and this cannot be allowed to continue."

Picking up on "reports based on a stream of internal leaks the NBN rollout is behind schedule and costing more to connect to each building than originally projected", IA states "there are concerns about delays in approvals for power needed for the technically inferior copper-based FttN service and about the capabilities of the decades old HFC (Pay-TV) cabling, both of which have been added to the current government’s so-called multi-technology mix (MTM) strategy".

Patton said: “Then there’s the question of the cheaper, so-called ‘skinny fibre’ that is now available. There have been claims that it is now close to the same cost to deploy as copper."

Much more below, please read on.

IA reminds us that our national broadband network "is the largest nation building infrastructure project in decades", and that IA "believes that it is an essential service required to underpin our ambitions to become an innovation nation", and that "it is also vital to our social development".

Patton continued: “NBN’s internal ‘whistle-blowers’ have provided an insight into the company’s activities that, if true, are clearly at odds with what we are being told by management."

Continuing the NBN explanation and exposition, IA states that "NBN is a government monopoly with no direct competitors. Therefore it cannot claim that its performance, in terms of the rollout of the network or the revenues it receives, are ‘commercial-in-confidence’. What’s more, if NBN was a listed company it would be required under the ASX Continuous Disclosure rule to provide accurate and up-to-date market information – especially in the light of any leaking of unpublished information as has happened here".

Taking a bit of the patina off the NBN, Patton pounced, stating: “The fact that information is now available that disputes what NBN and the government have told us requires immediate and full transparency. We, the taxpayers and shareholders funding this exercise, are surely entitled to know the true facts?”

Now, it is no secret that IA has"‘previously called for a rethink and urged the government and the opposition to put politics aside and agree on a bipartisan NBN strategy".

IA says its call "is based on the availability of the new, lower-cost, optical fibre and backed by a survey of members that found 80% dissatisfied with the MTM model".

Of course, just because IA asks for something is no guarantee anyone is going to get anything, but Patton does remind us all that: “At the same time as we’ve seen technology changing the Internet speeds delivered to consumers in other countries have been steadily rising and causing Australia to fall behind quite dramatically.

“We have slipped to 60th on global rankings from 30th just a few years ago, according to the widely-quoted ‘State of the Internet’ report from content delivery network Akamai. This slide relative to our peers will continue even as the NBN is being built so long as we rely on an ageing copper network”.

IA then notes that "both the government and the opposition have highlighted the need for Australia to become an innovation nation", and that to do this "will require high speed Internet connectivity on par with countries in our region also seeking to be innovation hubs".

Patton emphasises this by stating that “One of our biggest regional competitors, Singapore, already provides consumers with Internet access at speeds 100 times faster than ours. New Zealand is in front of us in a number of rankings and is well ahead in its overall broadband rollout.”

Stating the obvious has sadly not worked in the past in getting the Abbott-Turnbull government to do the right thing, and expecting it to do so in the midst of an election campaign is presumably fruitless, but clearly, it has to be said.

After all, IA is the peak body representing Internet users and a chapter of the influential global Internet Society, and as such, is well placed to provide independent comment and technical advice on NBN matters.

If only government would actually listen to IA and the people, the FttP might have been saved instead of ditched from the get-go, but we’ll have to wait until after the election to see whether there’s any true shift in NBN strategy.

Until then, Laurie Patton from Internet Australia will continue banging the drum as loudly into the ears of Senator Mitch Fifield and others as possible to ensure Australia’s NBN doesn’t end up an LGN or "last gen network".

We wish Internet Australia luck in its endeavours, and we hope to hear from NBN Co that its 2 millionth customer is connected way, way sooner than later – and we hope an acceleration of DOCSIS 3.1 technology, FTTdp, FttP and everything else start dramatically speeding things up far faster than it’s all currently going… ASAP!

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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