The NBN beyond now: a call to action to the Australian Government, NBN Co and Private Enterprises.

Author: Nam Hoang, Partner, Advisory

My relationship with the NBN (National Broadband Network) over the last few weeks of working from home has been one that can be described as “love-hate”, on the one side I am extremely grateful for the ability to be productive working from the safety and comfort of my home through the high speed connectivity the NBN has afforded me, but at the same time I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the inconsistent performance of the network. I’ve spent the last week mulling over details of our NBN – its history, current state and its planned future.

This article is an opinion piece as a result of my investigation and a call to action to the Australian Government, NBN Co and Private Enterprise to do more for the NBN now that there is both political and public appetite to do good for the nation. We must capitalise on the spirit of collaboration from all sides of government to push this national infrastructure forward and for the development of the high tech industry and the economy. 

A history and current state of Australia’s NBN

It’s been over a decade since the National Broadband Network Company (NBN Co) was formed and set on the mission to deliver on the Beazley/Rudd Government vision for a high speed National Broadband Network – connecting 93% of Australian homes and business premises to high speed Internet directly via Fibre Optics by the end of 2020.

Here we are in March 2020, as I reflect on the past eleven years at what has transpired, it seems that things have not gone to “The Plan”:

  • We’ve had five Prime Ministers with a continuous shift in political and technology direction – Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, Turnbull and now ScoMo
  • An average PM tenure rate of two years (the average tenure of an ASX200 CEO is six plus years)
  • Cost blowouts at an initial estimate of $43bn revised to $51bn.
  • We’ve ended up with a National Broadband Network that is comprised of many more acronyms – from just FTTP and Wireless to now having a “Multi-Technology-Mix” consisting of FTTP, FTTB, HFC, FTTC and FTTN, Fixed Wireless & Satellite. One might conclude (from experience with technology projects and operations) that the NBN’s operating complexity and costs are directly related to the number of acronyms in the technology stack.
  • Our mobile broadband performance from the privatised telcos has really ‘come up to speed’, overtaking fixed broadband performance (buckling the trend of similar OECD countries where Fixed Broadband is still superior) – our global ranking of 8th and 64th places respectively for mobile and fixed broadband speeds (Speedtest Global Speed Index – February 2020). 
  • Rollout progress as of 26th March approximately 6.9  to 11 million premises “Activated” and “Ready to Connect” respectively with an average rate of 300K activations monthly.
  • Sadly, adding insult to injury – we have also now fallen behind New Zealand in Broadband performance (if being dominated in the rugby wasn’t painful already)

Australia:

Source: Speedtest Global Speed Index February 2020

New Zealand:

Source: Speedtest Global Speed Index February 2020

With social distancing and other restrictive measures now in force due to COVID-19, the majority of Australians are  finding themselves homebound and heavily reliant on the NBN to go about our business of study, work and most importantly staying  in contact with their family and friends. The NBN, if anything, has become essential to keeping the wheels of the economy turning, and most importantly keeping us connected to maintain our livelihoods and sanity. 

On a personal level – my data usage has gone through the roof since WFH – the accuracy in terms of numbers of this graph is questionable but regardless, does provide a good scale for comparison.

My average usage over the past month

Call To Action

Now I’m sure there are plenty of smart people with much louder voices than myself who can make a real change at NBN Co, within Government and the private sector, so if you are listening, please consider my opinion as an engineer, business owner of a technology services company and citizen who cares on the following points:

  • The Government needs to further invest and elevate the NBN’s criticality, to the level of other critical services like police, health, transport, agriculture etc as part of the COVID19 response plan – provide more funding and necessary policy to increase adoption. Given the NBN’s usefulness in the time where the economy needs it the most. The price tag of $51bn pales in comparison to the $320bn+ (~16% of GDP)  in stimulus packages – figures that might otherwise be many times greater without the NBN.
  • We need to immediately increase capacity (beyond the planned 40%), monthly activation rate, and double down (fast track and prioritise) the connection of residential premises (given that most are now Working From Home  – WFH)
  • Key players in the private sector (you know who!!)  – please cast aside your beef with the NBN and help out with the roll-out / fill in the gaps, especially where the NBN is choking for man power, bandwidth and lacking coverage.
  • There is an opportunity to redeploy large sections of the workforce including those that might otherwise be out of the job and/or on JobKeeper with minimal productivity to work towards strengthening the nation’s information superhighway. I’m sure there would be many out there who would be happy to dedicate their expertise to further this foundational infrastructure for the century ahead.
  • Politicians and NBN Co Executives – please set aside the politics and  reassess the current technology strategy – is the current approach really the right thing for the country in the long term beyond the immediate need? In my view, our broadband pricing is still relatively expensive, which I’m sure is not helped by the infinitely complex technology mix.

History has shown us that it takes extraordinary circumstances and hardship for major societal transformation to occur. Finding ourselves under the devastating situation of a global pandemic, people have come to realise what is truly important – and a clear distinction has formed between wants versus needs (we want so much yet we need so little). The NBN is a clear present and future need for our nation’s continued operation and future prosperity.

Now is the time to capitalise on the broad political unity, support from businesses large and small, and citizens to push forward with strengthening the NBN for the future.  I hope that in years to come, everyone will see the NBN as a national treasure, completely Made in Australia, for the benefit of all Australians.

The NBN is too important to be left to for-profit private enterprise. Investing in the NBN now will ensure our way of life continues and, indeed, improves for generations to come.

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