ALP’s NBN? Computer says GNOP

2013-04-24 04.49.50 am

Published in The Australian, October 15, 2013

LIKE Tarzan, the feral child raised by the Mangani apes, Stephen Conroy ended his term as communications minister barely able to speak intelligible English.

He had, after all, spent much of the preceding six years entangled in the undergrowth of a dense technocratic jungle. His teachers belonged to a peculiar species of bureaucratic boffins cut off from the outside world.

2013-10-15 04.56.05 amWhile we live in homes, for example, they inhabit Standard Dwelling Units. We have streets, numbers and postcodes; they have Geocoded National Address Files.

To them, broadband is not just something hooked up to a computer but a 206,000km-long GPON, a Gigabyte-capable Passive Optical Network wired up to every GNAF in the country.

To us, a building that contains more than one GNAF is known as an apartment block. To them it is a Multiple Dwelling Unit, and it is here that installing the GPON gets tricky.

Wiring up a Brownfields MDU (what we might call an old block of flats) generally requires the co-operation of a body corporate, an organisation pathologically incapable of replacing a light bulb in the lobby, let alone installing Fibre Access Network Architecture (FANA) from an Optical Distribution Frame (ODF).

Curmudgeonly body corporates – or “frustrated MDUs” as they are technically known – were the bane of Conroy’s life until he resigned as communications minister in June.

In hindsight, we should have listened to his cry for help when he turned up at the Lateline studio in April to share his “ramp-up mobilisation issues” with Emma Alberici.

Alberici proved an unsympathetic counsellor, reminding Conroy of his promise that 1.7 million GNAFs would have GPON through the front door by June. What happened?

“Yeah, no, well,” Conroy struggled. “Clearly we’ve got an issue that these construction companies haven’t been able to ramp up fast enough.”

Indeed we do have an issue, since Conroy and his chums committed to invest $37 billion of our money to wire up Australia, and have conspicuously failed to do so.

Labor, the party committed to nation building, was skilled at building expectations, but very little else. Its self-proclaimed historic mission to build the railways of the 21st century has turned into another state-run disaster that is, quite probably, the most expensive folly ever embarked on by the Commonwealth.

Like all self-proclaimed makers of history, Conroy has struggled to accept responsibility.

When Stalin’s second Five-Year Plan failed to live up to expectations, Molotov blamed 585 wreckers of heavy industry and 68 Trotskyites in the press. When the NBN went awry, Conroy blamed Telstra, installation contractors, The Australian and The Daily Telegraph.

On Friday, however, in what appears to be a breakthrough, Conroy admitted that the NBN’s failure was, in part, attributable to poor government decisions.

“I guess it is fair to say that the construction model could be legitimately criticised,” he conceded. “So if I was doing something different, I would probably, if I could go back in time, and you learn it by hindsight … ”

Conroy cautiously admitted that the government’s insistence that high-speed fibre-optic cable should be rolled into every MDU in the country was one of two decisions that had slowed the NBN project.

“I think around the construction area, the model that they pursued in a couple of areas, which was impacted by decisions that we took along the way, would be things I’d look at, and want to have, if I could look back in time, more of an understanding of.”

It is surprising that Conroy failed to appreciate the MDU problem, since it was clearly spelt out in the KPMG/McKinsey implementation study he released before the 2010 election.

“If cost overruns related to MDU installation are widespread, this would threaten the ability of NBN Co to achieve the coverage requirement within the government’s initial expenditure estimate,” the report found.

It recommended that the fibre-to-the-premises policy be reviewed if the delivery began to go awry.

Yet a problem anyone with practical knowledge of telecommunications delivery could see a mile away was simply swept under the carpet. It was not until last year that the NBN’s rolling corporate plan even made a distinction between single and multiple dwelling units, let alone arrived at a workable solution to fulfil the government’s rash promise.

The entire government-induced shambles is now the responsibility of Malcolm Turnbull, the Communications Minister in a Coalition government that has bravely committed to completing the network Conroy began, but thankfully in a less ambitious form.

No longer will the NBN Co be expected to rummage around in the basement of ageing blocks of units for ducts to run cable to the kitchen; it will simply drop a cable at the entrance and let the body corporate do the rest.

Conroy may not have been the most impressive minister to be sworn in by an Australian governor-general, but it would be harsh to suggest the NBN debacle was caused by his particular incompetence.

Rather, like so many of the Rudd and Gillard administrations’ failures, the NBN invested too much faith in the ability of the state to micro-manage private lives.

After everything we have learnt about government central planning over the past 60 years, the Rudd government’s decision to nationalise broadband looked mad from the beginning.

Some four and a half years later, with fewer than 100,000 homes and businesses actually connected – a reach of less than 1 per cent – it looks stark, staring bonkers.

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