Taking out the trash: NBN rollout

James Riley
Editorial Director

A Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee report calling for a comprehensive overhaul of the NBN rollout and slamming current processes was quietly released to the public on a Friday afternoon before a weekend of football finals.

The Joint Standing Committee on the NBN, which has membership numbers that favour Labor and the crossbench, provided a scathing critique of the Coalition’s NBN rollout, lashing the way NBNCo deals with complaints, and the project’s lack of focus on regional Australia.

The report, which is the result of 12 months of submissions and consultations, recommended that the remaining NBN network roll-out should be completed using fibre-to-the-curb “at a minimum”, and that independent audits to be conducted on NBN Co’s long-term strategy.

Footy finals: What a exciting time to release a damning NBN report

It also called for a big expansion of the relevant Telecommunication Industry Ombudsman’s powers.

The report was dropped by the government late last Friday afternoon on a public holiday in Victoria, and in the lead-up to a long weekend in other states featuring two major sporting grand finals.

It’s unlikely that the government will heed any of the recommendations in the report though, with committee chair and Liberal MP Sussan Ley issuing a dissenting report refuting most of the majority report’s claims.

The joint standing committee was established in September last year to inquire into and report on the rollout of the NBN annually. It features a majority of Labor and crossbench MPs and Senators, along with a handful of Coalition members.

Across the last year, the group received nearly 200 submissions and conducted 15 public hearings, on which the report is based.

The first and most controversial recommendation from the committee is that the remaining fixed-line network should be completed using FTTC “at a minimum” rather than the government’s mixed technology approach. This falls in line with current Labor policy.

The report also includes a number of other recommendations centred on improving service in rural areas, improving oversight of its implementation and creating better avenues for customer complaints.

The committee found that while the NBN is being rolled out ahead of schedule, its speed and data metrics will not meet expectations, and that rural and regional areas are being disadvantaged.

“All the evidence strongly suggests that speed and data requirements of Australian households and business will continue to grow rapidly. [NBN Co’s] ‘user pays’ approach runs the risk of creating a digital divide in which low socio-economic areas with poor NBN are not upgraded because the demand and matching revenue will not meet the NBN upgrade model,” the committee said in the report.

“As it stands, Australia will not be provided with a fast, affordable ubiquitous and fair broadband network.”

To counter this, the committee recommended that a regional and remote reference group be established to “support roll-out in rural and remote Australia”, and that an independent audit and assessment be undertaken of the “long-term assumptions underpinning NBN’s financial projections and business case”.

The committee also found that the transition to the NBN from previous networks has been “extremely poor” for some people.

“Many problems have been experienced at every stage of the migration process, from installation issues through to speed and performance faults once services are established,” the report said.

“The quality and service issues identified in this report were foreseeable and should have been identified and addressed systematically a lot earlier.”

“The failure to ensure end-users are in a position to navigate the NBN migration process when coupled with the quality and service issues has caused a lack of confidence in the NBN, which in turn has likely affected the public appetite for higher speed broadband packages.”

Recommendations in this area include ensuring customers that lodge complaints are made aware of the external dispute resolution options, an expansion of the TIO’s powers to compel relevant parties into dispute resolution meetings, and to improve transparency in the way NBN Co handles disputes.

The committee also slammed the use of Sky Muster, which was designed to provide the NBN to rural and remote areas of Australia that missed out on the fixed-line and fixed-wireless services.

It said that this was meant to be a “technology of last resort”, but it has been used in areas that were previously meant to get fixed wireless NBN, and has been “beset with problems”.

The committee recommended users be given more avenues to lodge complaints, and better transparency of the overall process.

“The lack of enforceable rights and protections for consumers is a significant regulatory deficiency that cannot be allowed to continue. Lack of progress in developing new consumer protections is leaving business and residential consumers at risk,” its report said.

The current strategy behind the NBN rollout is also likely to increase the “digital divide” in rural and regional Australia, the report stated.

“The committee is concerned that NBN is delivering a service of quite varied quality with the potential to fall short of a ubiquitous network in which a foundation of reliable, affordable, high-speed internet is available to the vast majority of households and businesses,” the report said.

“The uneven nature of the multi-technology mix and the apparent over-use of satellite broadband could exacerbate existing social, economic and digital inequality.

“The committee believes that the current design and rollout of the NBN is likely to maintain the digital divide, which means that particular communities and social groups will not share in the benefits of broadband technology, but will instead find themselves further separated in terms of full social and economic participation in Australian life.”

Committee chair and Liberal MP Sussan Ley issued a dissenting report, which was signed by the other Liberal members but not by Nationals MP Andrew Broad, who was also a member of the standing committee.

The dissenting report said that NBN Co is doing a “phenomenal job” in rolling out the network, and that the proposed changes would pass on high costs to Australians.

“Rolling out the next generation NBN to all Australians as quickly as possible is a priority for the Coalition government. But national objectives must always be tempered by economic reality and tested by thorough public scrutiny,” Ms Ley said in the dissenting report.

In a statement, NBN Co welcomed the joint standing committee’s report.

“We need to maintain the balance of getting broadband to people as quickly as possible, while minimising these problems,” NBN Co said.

“No large-scale construction project has ever been problem-free.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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