NBN's glimmer of hope

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If you’re seeking answers to the many questions that have been posed about the National Broadband Network (NBN) rollout you will have to venture off the beaten track, in a distant corner of Australia to find what you’re looking for.

Labor’s NBN dream might be on its last legs but the rollout work taking place in Northern Territory right now could well serve as the template for getting the fibre rolled out efficiently.

Depending on what you read, the NBN rollout is either running on schedule, one or two months behind schedule due to unavoidable delays or more than a year behind schedule and falling further behind schedule every day.

Northern Territory has the dubious distinction of being the first region in Australia where the NBN Co’s arrangements with the contactors came unstuck. However, Syntheo’s tribulations have now given way to a far more palatable scenario

The trouble with contractors

One of the ongoing issues for NBN Co has been the use of four construction companies to pull together contractors and sub-contractors to carry out the NBN rollout. This approach has meant there would be a loss of direct contact between NBN Co and the people on the ground carrying out the work.

Education, motivation, community involvement, and knowledge transfer are some of the factors that have been lost through the outsourced construction approach adopted by NBN Co.

In more recent times there have been concerns about the interaction between the four construction companies and their workforce. Complaints by contractors and sub-contractors about late payment and low wages have become public knowledge and this does not bode well for reasonable progress with the NBN rollout.

The cumulative effects of the construction problems have proven to be fatal for NBN Co and Labor’s fibre to the premises (FTTP), with the Coalition having a field day with the numbers.

NBN Co’s rollout target for June was 55,000 new housing estate premises, this was downgraded to 40,000 and the target for existing premise was reduced from 286,000 to about 200,000. By June, NBN Co had achieved more than 207,000 premise passed with fibre, but the rate of connecting premise remains low especially for apartment buildings.

The pain is further compounded by the fact that the number of existing connected or active premises is woeful compared to the number of premises passed.

Rollout hits the right notes in Darwin

In March, NBN Co’s outgoing boss Mike Quigley admitted there were difficulties with the prime contractor in the Northern Territory, Syntheo, and subsequently terminated its contract.

NBN Co took direct control of the rollout in the Northern Territory and effectively created a unique scenario that should, over time, provide a clear indication of whether this approach should have been adopted earlier.

Darwin and the Northern Territory are unique for other reasons as well.

Construction crews have to work in hot, humid and demanding conditions not experienced by contractors further south. On a recent visit to rollout sites in Darwin workers, one wearing a camel back to remain hydrated in the extreme heat, were quick to point out to me that they were learning, adapting and keen to beat rollout targets.

The use of local contractors that have experience with the conditions is highlighted by the first construction contractor to sign up with NBN Co after Syntheo’s removal. Top End Trenching and Communications, predominately a family owned local indigenous workforce, have become an important contributor to Darwin’s fibre rollout. Other local contractors, including SEQ Electrical and JSM Civil have been brought on board to boost capability.

New management makes a difference

Roy Bliss took over as the Region Project Director NT in July and is now responsible for the NBN rollout across the Territory. Bliss, a former UK military officer, brings extensive telecommunications experience to his new position. He now has a team of about 30 project staff to bring together all of the elements needed to move the NBN rollout forward.

Key to whether or not Bliss can forge a success out of the earlier Syntheo failure will be the need to motivate both the NBN Co workforce and the construction contractors. Bliss understands this and is making every effort to interact closely with workers to gain their trust and help them overcome obstacles as they arise.

Criticism of the NBN rollout has focused on the three stage strategy which can be described as passing a premise (fibre down the street), connecting a premise (fibre terminated on the premise building) and activating a premise (network termination device (NTD) installed and turned on).

A just in time approach would have premise passed on day one, premise connected on day two and premise active on day three. By the afternoon of the third day retail service provider representatives should be able to knock on the door and try to sell plans to the residents.

Build local, use local

Bliss is currently investigating the use of local electrical contractors to boost the premise connection rate which will provide an opportunity for more customers to move onto the NBN sooner.

Electrical contractors have face to face customer relationship management experience and a better understanding of the intricacies of installing cables in customer premise than construction companies which are better suited to work outside premise.

The petri dish that is Darwin still has the feel and energy of a frontier town and local contractors from electrical and other disciplines could be used to enhance the NBN Co team and get the job done more efficiently. Local contractors have a stake in the NBN rollout as their communities will benefit from the new and improved opportunities that fibre broadband will bring.

But can Bliss bring order to the Northern Territory rollout and gather the people needed to do the job before the Coalition’s promised NBN reviews report in December?

If the Coalition wins the election this weekend it becomes vital that Bliss and his team be given every opportunity, between now and the end of this year, to move their plan of action forward and demonstrate whether the national fibre rollout should continue.