The departing head of the trouble-plagued NBN, Bill Morrow, has finally come clean. He has finally conceded that reusing Telstra’s ageing copper wires is creating major problems.
In a paper published by NBN Co last week, Morrow admits that fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) is causing lower speeds and more dropouts than the fibre which was originally being rolled out. He also acknowledges that there are too many dissatisfied NBN customers.
This is the man who abused parliamentary privilege to slander me for saying what he’s now admitting. Despite a reproach from members of the Senate Estimates committee he was fronting, Morrow refused to apologise, leading the committee to publish my repudiation of his false assertions. Ironically, I also noted my contention that FTTN was creating the very problems NBN Co is now facing.
Until late last year I was the executive director of Internet Australia (IA). On IA’s behalf I helped lead the campaign for #BetterBroadband. IA is a member-based group that includes many of the top broadband experts in the country. In a survey in 2015, 80 percent of the members who voted told us they didn’t think the copper-based FTTN option was good enough.
Eighteen months ago I met with Drew Clarke when he was the Prime Minister’s chief-of-staff and told him exactly what Bill Morrow is now saying. He ignored my advice. Now he’s on the NBN Co board!
Had the Government moved back then, they could have adopted the new FTTdp (fibre to the driveway) technology much earlier and saved a lot of NBN customers angst, while also saving the country a lot of money.
Fighting for a 21st century broadband service has not been without its challenges. Last year The Australian published a series of false and defamatory articles attacking IA and me. I had no choice but to threaten to sue for defamation. Part of the settlement involved The Australian publishing a rebuttal and appending it via a link to each of the earlier stories. It is even more apposite in the light of Mr Morrow’s belated confession.
What I pointed out back then, in December 2017, is that 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 ten 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.
I also noted that the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on the NBN had recently published its first report following an extensive review of the rollout. The committee called on the government to immediately direct NBN Co to abandon FTTN.
NBN Co is apparently sticking to its hoary old argument that the current strategy has allowed a quicker and cheaper rollout. The evidence is to the contrary. In New Zealand, where they’ve stuck with fibre, they’ve progressively reduced their per premises cost by about 50 percent. If we’d done the same we could have built the NBN for less than it will have cost once you add in the expense of replacing about 40 percent of the fixed line network that’s using FTTN. For my money, the project won’t be finished until everyone has reliable and fast internet access. So when you include the time it will take to rip out and replace FTTN it will actually have taken longer to build the thing.
It seems even Mr Morrow is sick of defending the mess that he’s created. He’s leaving NBN Co at the end of the year. It’s unclear, however, what efforts he has made to persuade the government to dump its flawed multi-technology mix strategy. The rumour is he couldn’t get the board to admit they’d made a mistake in adopting the MTM model. Who knows, Mr Morrow might tell us before he leaves if this is indeed true. At least that would allow him to save some face.
Laurie Patton is the 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, which is the primary organisation overseeing the management of the internet.
This article, slightly amended, also appeared in Independent Australia on 29 April 2018.