Friday, March 08, 2013

The NBN, Tony Windsor and a case of shifting priorities

Last month, I ran a piece (New England Business News - February 2013 1) in which I referred to a particular issue that had arisen with the NBN roll-out in Armidale. Now the Sydney Morning Herald in investigative campaign mode (Broadband blues: thousands stuck in the slow lane) is exploring further problems. You can find the IT News piece that was the original source here: NBN Co fudges numbers to expand rollout.

A small professional point first. I was interested in the way Granny (the paper has been called Granny Herald for a very long time because of its approach) was attempting to use the comments section to scope the problem and gain material for a new story. That's the internet for you!

More broadly, no pun intended, there has been a certain rigidity in Minister Conroy's rules based approach to NBN.

We do need to recognise his problems. Rolling out a huge infrastructure project in a regulated oligopolistic environment with huge commercial interests where you are regulator and investor was never going to be easy. The IT News piece itself draws from material supplied by one of the commercial players.

Minister Conroy does not appear to be a flexible minister, nor does he operate in a political environment that encourages flexibility. And yet, the success of a project like the NBN depends on flexibility. You know your objectives: give a little here, take a little there, fix this problem, make this compromise; and always you push forward towards your objective. It's all about adjustment at the margin. Mind you, margin is a relative term. With a project as big as this in an industry as big as this, a marginal adjustment can be a pretty big thing in absolute terms. 

Some of the current problems emerged very early in the context of telecommunications to new housing estates. A gap was created between the now and the future. The old connection regime was withdrawn without anything effective being put in its place.

If you look at Minister Conroy's web site (click on his name above), you will see that the Minister is welcoming all sorts of new NBN roll-outs. If you look at the IT News story, you will see that this is being done by reducing roll-out elsewhere. It's robbing Peter to pay Paul.

I wonder how Tony Windsor feels?

A dedicated supporter of the provision of proper telecommunications services to country Australia, the NBN was a key factor in his decision to support the formation of a Gillard Government. Now the two largest centres in his electorate, Tamworth and Armidale, appear to have been affected by the re-alignment of NBN priorities.

This is not an attack on Tony. I have the highest respect for him. But I would be interested in his response. 


Very full coverage in today's Australian Financial Review of NBN troubles, including NBNCo's decision to sack its Northern Territory contractor as well as issues associated with access decisions, preferential or otherwise.        

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