NBN Co's bad telco habits

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The relationship between the telecommunications industry and its customers has always been adversarial with the telcos seen as a necessary evil; their promises of “customer satisfaction”, “value for money” and transparency disregarded as disingenuous PR speak.

For decades telcos failed to communicate with their customers and transparency was non-existent. The belief was that customers did not need to know the inner workings of the industry nor why they were being ripped off despite repeated calls for change.

Fixing this opacity was ostensibly one of the key benefits of implementing a National Broadband Network (NBN) program. Unfortunately, recent reports would seem to suggest that NBN Co is suffering the same affliction as the telcos when it comes to transparency.

NBN Co sliding backwards

The NBN will provide a ubiquitous national network that will increase transparency. RSPs, including the mobile cellular providers, will compete for customers and by taking the underlying network out of the service provider equation there will be a need for telcos to further increase their customer interaction.

This instils a need for greater transparency

Given the scale and the grand ambition of the NBN project and one would expect NBN Co to be transparent and actively encourage Australians to participate in a process designed to transform the Australian telecom infrastructure landscape.

Unfortunately, this process has been riddled with political divisiveness and the after commencing operation several years ago using a low key opaque approach, NBN Co appears to be moving further and further away from the transparency. Whether wilful or not, the continued opacity has ended up hurting the prospects of a Labor NBN securing its future.

Last week, a report on iTnews stated that Kenneth Tsang, the founder of mynbn.info, had found that changes to the NBN Co rollout map removed access to key data that provided information on premise where work had commenced but service was unavailable. Essentially, it makes keeping track of the weekly progress of multi-dwelling unit (MDU) connection statistics very difficult.

While NBN Co has clarified that its changes were designed to allow quicker download of rollout maps, critics of the current NBN Co regime are only too happy to pin this is as another attempt by NBN Co to hide information about “problem” premise including multi-dwelling units.

The NBN Co’s approach of rolling fibre past premise and failing to ensure the premise became active within days has been a source of constant criticism and this latest report adds more fuel to the fire.

Changing the tune

NBN Co’s deficiencies has encouraged some to suggest that the company is backsliding to a position more commonly associated with traditional telcos, which isn’t as farfetched as one might think given that a number of executives in NBN Co have moved from telcos and have adopted a business as usual approach. Old habits die hard but what would be galling for NBN Co is that the aspersions around its transparency are being raised at a time when the major telcos are changing their tune.

Vodafone Hutchinson Australia CEO Bill Morrow arrived in March 2012 to find a company on the brink of failure which in some large part led to the Vodafone becoming colloquially known as VodaFail.  Morrow’s task was to turn the company around and this meant he had the difficult or should it be described as “unusual” task for a telco CEO, to reconnect the company with customers.

Successive actions taken by Morrow have to a large degree put Vodafone back on a solid footing. Recently Vodafone announced that it would put an end to international roaming gouging by leveraging the Vodafone global network to provide global roaming in countries in which Vodafone has a presence for an additional $5 per day.

While Vodafone has taken a positive step to address the global roaming rip-off and gained some much needed positive media in the process. While Optus and Telstra are silent on the roaming front both are moving aggressively to make customer-centricity a key plank of their growth strategy.

British Telecom in hot water

It’s a start but there’s plenty more to be done on the transparency front. NBN Co may have its weaknesses but the private sector’s track record on this less than appealing. Shadow communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull often points to British Telecom and the “success” of the BT fibre to the node roll-out.

Yet recently BT has found itself in a cauldron of boiling oil for a lack of transparency, treating its customers poorly and taking every opportunity to put its hand into the public purse for apparently dubious reasons.

BT has been variously accused of overcharging for the broadband roll-out in rural regions, failing to provide broadband speeds that meet customer demand and failing to be transparent when it comes to expenditure of public funds. The whistleblower that provided information to media on the BT program has apparently been sacked.

In the British Audit Office report auditors noted: "This makes it difficult for the department and for local bodies to gain transparency over the level of costs included in BT's local bids."

The accusations being levelled against BT could equally be levelled at local telcos which have demonstrated the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the telecommunications industry.

Transparency has an upside

It’s a pitfall that NBN Co needs to avoid at all cost, regardless of which NBN is rolled out, and greater transparency has a significant upside.

Rather than viewing transparency as a poison chalice there is an upside. The NBN should be built with an open and transparent approach that encourages communities and individuals to work with NBN Co to meet the many challenges that have and will continue to occur as the rollout progresses.

Schools, community groups, and professionals should be encouraged to track progress, provide community based assistance to the rollout teams (it is surprising what a cup of tea and access to toilets would mean to the rollout teams) and to assist when problems are found.

Local communities have a wealth of knowledge about their region and in some areas it is this local knowledge that is needed to ensure the fibre rollout proceeds unhindered.

Rather than building goodwill within Australia, NBN Co is under siege on multiple front and fast becoming an object of derision, a process actively encouraged by the coalition.

There can only be one unsavoury outcome if this process continues unchecked. NBN Co must come to the collective realisation that first and foremost it’s a public company that is expending public funds on a nation building project.

At some point the NBN Co board needs to take a leap of faith and move forward rather than plummet down the same black hole that has consumed the telecommunications industry for decades.

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