Asking the tough NBN questions

The National Broadband Network (NBN) is unstoppable in one form or another and the September election will not alter this. If the Coalition wins the election the result may be changes to the NBN rollout plan and technologies to be used but there is no suggestion that the Coalition will wind the clock back to the pre-NBN era. But what does the NBN really mean for customers, government and business and what should our priorities be so that the NBN contributes to the nation as a whole?

That’s the debate we need to have in the lead-up to the September election rather than the current arguments about cost, technologies and how to put fibre in multi-dwelling units.

Both sides of politics agree on one thing and that is the inevitable shift to Fibre to the Premise (FTTP). However, there is still plenty of uncertainty about whether the NBN can indeed bring about changes to the way customers, government and industry interact? Should NBN Co adopt practices and processes that exist in the industry now or should NBN Co become the Australian Apple? Don’t be mistaken, NBN Co will be in control of what happens in the telecommunications industry over the next 30 years and should be investing in the development of new technology applications and working with industry to facilitate new innovative approaches.

All of this also makes you wonder whether NBN Co is starting to look like a mirror of Telstra? 
The NBN will provide this nation with a once in a 30-year opportunity for change to an entire industry. Yet early signs are that this opportunity may be wasted unless politicians step up and provide their plan for how this opportunity will be leveraged.

Better accountability for better outcomes

The banking sector introduced online banking over the past decade and we have seen an opportunity missed for a whole new approach to be adopted on how banks can interact with customers. Instead banks attempted to duplicate existing processes and procedures to the online world. The result has been less than spectacular performance and the experience of most Australians is that online banking is nothing to sing about.

A major difference with the NBN is that it is being publicly funded and therefore Australians can and should demand a better outcome.

Last year I wrote about the problems that Australians face on a daily basis when dealing with their service providers. The results of the current chaotic environment are poor service and a record number of complaints that grows annually. With the NBN there will be an explosion of new service providers, wholesalers and product brokers entering the market.

How will service providers deal with this growth in products and services? Service providers will need to move away from the current silo approach used to manage business products to a flat model that provides greater flexibility when bringing together product bundles for customers. A one size fits all approach will not be successful in the NBN world.

Customers want to receive a single monthly bill, to benefit from bundle savings and to have a single point of contact for all interactions with service providers. Customers also want greater transparency of service quality, network availability and real-time network traffic updates – just like we get now with road highway reports.

Last year the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) created a new technology applications section that will focus on how technologies can be used to improve customer outcomes and through the development of codes of practice the ACMA will be central to facilitating the changes needed not only for an improved customer experience but also to ensure innovative service providers are not stifled in their efforts to move to new customer and business product management systems.

The ACMA and the Communications Alliance, the primary telecommunications industry body in Australia, work together to overcome problems and improve outcomes for the telecommunications industry but the updated Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code 2012 (TCP 2012) is an example of a good outcome that should have happened years earlier. Has the TCP 2012 reduced the number of customer complaints? No. There is a need for more urgent work by the ACMA and the Communications Alliance.

An opportunity for the ACCC

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) wrote to NBN Co on 29 January 2013 asking for further information about the Special Access Undertaking (SAU) that NBN Co lodged with the ACCC on 18 December 2012. The ACCC describes the SAU as “a key part of the framework that governs the price and other terms upon which NBN Co will supply services over its fibre, wireless and satellite networks to telecommunications companies. It will also build upon the role for the ACCC in resolving disputes between NBN Co and its customers.”

The need for change in the industry is not adequately covered by the SAU, rather it focuses on a limited number of matters that include cost, product delivery and service quality. The SAU will become a corner stone for the NBN and there is a need for forward thinking before the SAU is finalised.

The ACCC must take this opportunity to ensure that NBN Co includes a provision for improved technology applications and innovative solutions to be implemented between NBN Co and service providers. NBN Co must commit to making available real-time information about network and service request status, and other important metrics. NBN Co must not stifle service provider innovation nor limit information flows between service providers and NBN Co.

A one size fits all approach will be a chain around NBN Co’s neck that will stifle innovation and excellence within the industry. The September election provides an opportunity for political parties to put forward plans for customer, government and business interactions between each other and with NBN Co. In the NBN era this will be one of the most important productivity drivers affecting the success of the NBN. 

Mark Gregory is a Senior Lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University