NBN Co’s Morrow says sayonara

James Riley
Editorial Director

Bill Morrow, the US expat tech executive hand-picked by the Coalition to rejig the NBN, is standing down as chief executive and has scored mixed reviews from industry observers.

Mr Morrow, who took over running NBN Co in April 2014 from then interim CEO and current NBN chairman Ziggy Switkowski, will leave the national broadband network provider by the end of this year.

The next boss of NBN Co will face a politically uncertain future. With a Federal election due by May 2019 it could be a short-term gig if the Coalition loses and an incoming Labor government decides to appoint their own person to the role.

Bill Morrow: Has given government plenty of notice of his plans to leave

Mr Morrow’s appraisal from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was not surprisingly rolled gold.

The PM said Mr Morrow had done an “amazing job” and some would agree that overseeing the rejig of the network from Labor’s original mostly fibre to the home plan to Mr Turnbull’s multi technology mix of fibre to the node, fibre to the premise, HFC and (lately) some fibre to the curb has taken a mixture of diplomacy, salesmanship and tough management.

Current Coalition Communications Minister Mitch Fifield gave Mr Morrow a perfect score.

“Under Mr Morrow’s guidance, the National Broadband Network has met all of its operational and financial targets,” Mr Fifield said in a joint statement with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, and praised Mr Morrow for his “outstanding leadership.”

As for Mr Morrow, he’s off to the next step in a global telco management career that has seen him as CEO of Vodafone Europe, CEO of US telco Clearwire, and CEO of Vodafone Hutchison Australia.

“I believe that as the company prepares to confront the new challenges ahead, this is the right time to hand over the reins for the next phase of this incredible project and for me to plan for the next step in my career,” Mr Morrow said in a statement.

John Stanton, the Communications Alliance chief executive said Mr Morrow had steered the NBN through difficult times and had handled the politics of the NBN well.

NBN Co is a member of the Communications Alliance and NBN Co’s Caroline Lovell is a director of the Communications Alliance.

“Bill Morrow confronted a difficult landscape on his arrival at NBN,” said Mr Stanton. “A complex technical and operational remit in an environment that was politically charged at the time – and has become no less so during Bill’s time as CEO.

“No-one who has watched him at close quarters would disagree that Bill has accelerated the pace of the network roll-out and taken on the challenges of the project with relentless energy and strong leadership.

“Bill has dealt with the external political elements of the role with more grace than most of us could hope to muster,” said Mr Stanton.

The NBN has hit many snags during its rollout with numerous customer complaints about connection problems and slower than expected speeds, while whole sections of the network, such as the Optus HFC cable that was found to be not fit for purpose, have had to be redesigned on the fly.

The project which is now expected to be finished in 2020 and has slipped long past the 2016 completion date promised by the Coalition during the 2013 election.

Labor shadow communications Minister Michelle Rowland said Mr Morrow had done a professional job at implementing the Turnbull government’s “flawed” NBN.

“We recognise Mr Morrow was given a challenging task in implementing the multi-technology mix, and that he conducted himself as a professional and performed the role consistent with the policy direction of the Turnbull Government,” Ms Rowland said in a statement.

“But let’s be frank about the underlying issues – the predictable timing of this departure is no accident.

“It highlights the problems Labor has consistently argued in relation to the long-term economics of Malcolm Turnbull’s flawed multi-technology mix.

“At the end of all this, Australia will have spent $50 billion on an inferior network that costs more and does less. No-one in their right mind would spend that amount of money on a network dominated by copper and HFC.

“There will come a point where tactical pricing discounts can no longer conceal the failures of this government,” Ms Rowland said.

Communications analyst Paul Budde, long a champion of a mostly fibre NBN said Mr Morrow played a political management game.

“When Bill Morrow accepted the position of CEO of the company he went into this situation with his eyes wide open,” said Mr Budde.

“He followed the political line that the government prescribed rather than going for what would have been the best technical solution.

“Most of the predictions made at that time of what the consequences of the downgrade would be, have eventuated over the last five years and the project is riddled with problems and is not delivering what the people expect of a modern digital infrastructure,” Mr Budde said.

“It was sad to see that Bill at several occasions downplayed these expectations.

“Predictions of the problems the network would face by using old copper infrastructure and old HFC infrastructure have all eventuated and is causing a lot of negativity in the market and Bill would have known this from the very start and obviously accepted such an outcome,” said Mr Budde.

Signs of Mr Morrow’s coming departure were in plain sight said industry observer Mark Gregory.

“The tell-tale signs were there after Christmas when his inner circle started departing or moving to other positions,” said Mr Gregory.

“For him to commit to remain for the next year means he would have had to commit to be there at the next election, and that would not have been personally an enviable position for him to be in I would imagine,” he said.

“The Coalition will be looking for a fresh face because we should expect there to be a hard run of spin about the NBN going into the next election,” Mr Gregory said.

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