NBN: Numbers, fudges and FUD

NBN Co announced its rollout numbers this week, indicating that it had met its rollout target for its fibre network, passing 207,500 premises. Naturally, as with everything this political, the numbers have come under heavy attack.
Image: Gavin St. Ours
On the one hand, it could be said that NBN Co’s done a good job, hitting the middle ground of its planned target range (190,000-220,000 premises passed) by that date. It would be interesting to know how much of the slowdown/stoppage of work relating to Telstra asbestos issues played a part there, and what the numbers may have been if asbestos had been handled correctly. Clearly, your political (or sensibility) spin may play a part in who you blame for that particular issue, although I’ve got to say that asbestos is in a whole lot of products across Australia. Suggesting that NBN Co put it there, or ignored it completely is living off in la la land.
On the other hand, the progress is slow, and the targets were revised. Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has gone on the offensive, stating that NBN Co has shattered its credibility by redefining the definition of “premises passed”, because the numbers above include properties where live fibre has passed, but it’s not possible to actually get a connection right now. He’s also gone on the attack on the basis of wireless rollout figures, where much less progress has been made.
Given my own political leanings (slightly to the left, but no, I’m not a member of the Labor party, or for that matter The Greens; that’s a discussion for another day), it may surprise some to know that I agree with Turnbull, at least a little bit.
Look, he’s very clearly running his own particular line of spin here, because he’s angling for election right about now, and making the other mob look bad through FUD is all part of the political game. Malcolm Turnbull isn’t above selectively quoting facts to suit his own benefit; there’s a lovely piece that nicely debunks the whole 25Mbps minimum download/what-happens-to-the-upload over at Sortius Is A Geek that I highly recommend you read, for example.
In the case of premises passed, it’s more complex than simply saying that the numbers are false; there are other considerations to take into account. I’ve seen a few comments around the traps suggesting that many of the areas that look “worst” for this kind of number fudging are those with high concentrations of apartments and flats — multi-dwelling units (MDUs) if you like the generally accepted acronyms. MDUs are tricky to connect because you’ve got to work with body corporates for connectivity, and that means negotiating with a whole bunch of rights holders. If one person in a fifty apartment block wants an NBN connection but the majority don’t, what happens then? Is that the fault of NBN Co, the individual or the body corporate?
That’s not a wholesale excuse, though, and not one that I think can be applied to every situation, and that’s where I agree with Turnbull. There’s every reason to watch NBN Co progress like a hawk, because it is a serious and costly nation-spanning project. I’m perfectly happy to separate the technology (where fibre is so much superior to the prospect of a mixed and muddled if-they’ll-even-do-it FTTN/FTTP Coalition network that it’s not even funny) and the companies rolling it out. Although it does bring to mind two distinct thoughts, which I’ll finish on:

  • Turnbull’s stated opinion is that the government shouldn’t be building the NBN anyway. At the launch of the Coalition policy, he stated “Every other country in the world that I can think of has taken the approach of getting the industry, the private sector to do it and provide some degree of subsidy for the non-commercial, non-economic areas.” NBN Co is using private sector companies to actually manage the build, and that’s where many of the rollout problems have occurred. Again, this doesn’t absolve NBN Co of management issues, but many of these are presumably the same mobs that would be rolling out the Coalition vision. How is that different, exactly?
  • I keep hitting the “they started it half a decade ago; it should be half done” rhetoric, again usually from those with a rather specific political view. That’s nonsense of the highest order. To draw a simple analogy, building a two-story house from scratch on a six month schedule doesn’t usually mean by month three that the first level is ready for you to move in. Indeed, I suspect you’d be lucky to have the framework done by then. Any kind of reasonable analysis, and indeed NBN Co’s own plans suggest a massive ramping up of rollout speed as things progress. The question remains as to whether it can stick to that kind of acceleration.

1 thought on “NBN: Numbers, fudges and FUD”

  1. “because the numbers above include properties where live fibre has passed, but it’s not possible to actually get a connection right now”
    That’s a pretty significant point. And whether it is the fault of NBN Co or body corporates or councils (or whoever has a say in what gets connected where) is not relevant when you’re talking numbers.
    And yes, I agree.. those first few years has all been about design and regulations and all that stuff.. but yes.. as we get closer to the 10 year mark, things SHOULD be accellerating…

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