In a week where their contractors walked off the job, NBN Co announced another round of upgrades, adding to the $70 billion already spent.
Back in 2013, Prime Minister Tony Abbott saw the NBN as an opportunity to play wedge politics. Claiming the project would cost too much, he ordered Malcolm Turnbull, his communications minister, to abandon Labor’s state-of-the-art fibre model.
Fast forward to 2021. Their “faster, cheaper” version has so far cost more than twice the $29 billion Turnbull claimed it would. In recent weeks, NBN Co have started to upgrade some of the worst connections. This will also require billions of dollars from the taxpayer.
Ostensibly, the Coalition decided to abandon a 21st-century solution, in favour of using worn-out old copper wires and cables originally installed to deliver pay television.
But the problems facing NBN Co run far deeper than a poor choice of technologies. The frustration felt by hundreds of contractors building the network led them to protest outside the organisation’s head office earlier this week. Organised by the Communications Electrical Plumbing Union (CEPU), the protestors vented their frustrations at what CEPU National President Shane Murphy referred to as a “pyramid” scheme.
Murphy (who represents the contractors), said that “…these technicians are highly skilled workers – yet because of the NBN’s ‘pyramid style’ sham contracting scheme, it’s the executives and middle-men who are profiting from Australia’s NBN while the people doing the work are getting get ripped off and consumers continue to suffer with sub-standard connections.
“The NBN rollout has been plagued with issues from day one, and workers won’t put up with it any longer. NBN Co needs to scrap their dodgy pyramid contracting model, improve pay rates and ditch the shonky booking app.
“Subcontractors are being forced to sign new contracts with NBN Co Delivery partners which cuts their pay, all whilst NBN executives paid themselves $77 million in bonuses during the pandemic. It’s infuriating,” Murphy said.
This dispute adds to the perception that the business is not at all well run. Retail Service Providers (the retailers who sell access to the public) have long been dissatisfied with the terms under which they are charged for accessing the NBN – not to mention the heavily publicised issues, such as technicians not turning up as scheduled, and numerous cases where repeat visits have been necessary
I can personally attest to the fact that there are countless very skilled and dedicated employees labouring away at NBN Co. Many have been there from the outset, and must be hoping that one day they’ll be allowed to return to the vision that lured them there.
The problem, like the proverbial rotting fish, starts at the head. The board, stacked with new directors loyal to the government that appointed them, has consistently resisted urgings from the tech community to fix the mess. It even rejected a detailed submission from the senior management group to that effect.
Yesterday, the government unveiled a $1.2 billion package designed to “secure Australia’s economic future and recovery from COVID-19”. This ‘Digital Economy Strategy’ will underpin improvements in jobs, productivity and make Australia’s economy more resilient. Alas, it appears none of this money will go to the NBN, which is arguably the biggest handbrake on our so-called ‘digital economy’.
In the end, someone will eventually have to take responsibility and fix our troubled National Broadband Network. The question, of course, is who?
As Shane Murphy put it earlier in the week, “the mismanagement of Australia’s NBN network continues to be left unaddressed and workers have had enough”.
I suspect a lot of NBN users are feeling the same way.
Laurie Patton is a former CEO of Internet Australia and the immediate past vice-president of the Telecommunications Society. He was once described by The Australian newspaper as the country’s most vocal NBN critic, a tag he wears with pride.