What Went Wrong With The NBN?

What Went Wrong With The NBN?
Image: Getty Images

It is perhaps time to remind ourselves of the ups and downs of the project that was once announced as a dream national infrastructure project for the 21st century.

We are now ten years into the National Broadband Network (NBN) rollout, and the nation has an average internet speed that lags well behind most advanced economy countries. So what went wrong? Let’s take a look at some of the ups and downs that have occurred since the NBN’s inception.

Best unlimited NBN 100 plan in Australia:

The ups

In November 2007, after 11 years of Coalition government, Labor was elected on a policy platform that promised a national broadband network.

The NBN company was announced in April 2009 to provide terrestrial fibre network coverage for 93% of Australian premises by the end of 2020. Fixed wireless and satellite coverage would serve the remaining 7%.

Looking back, it’s hard to deny the influence the NBN has had on Australian politics. Perhaps the peak influence was when three independent MPs cited the NBN as one of the key reasons why they supported a Labor government over the Coalition when the 2010 federal election produced a hung parliament.

The final 60 early NBN rollout locations were then announced. The plan was for the first stage of the large-scale rollout to follow, connecting 3.5 million premises in 1,500 communities by mid-2015.

The downs

The early NBN rollout experienced significant delays. This attracted a great deal of “overwhelmingly negative” media coverage. Public opinion polls reflected growing dissatisfaction with the national project.

This dissatisfaction and the September 2013 federal election result changed the fate of the NBN. In 2013, the new Coalition government suspended the first stage of the large-scale fibre-to-premises NBN rollout to reassess the scale of the project.

In 2014, the government announced that the NBN rollout would change from a primarily fibre-to-premises model to a multi-technology-mix model. The technology to be used would be determined on an area-by-area basis.

This change of direction resulted in a prolonged state of uncertainty at the local government level. As it was rolled out, the NBN was widely criticised for being slow, expensive and obsolete.

Current state of play

Delays continue in the construction of the Coalition’s NBN. What can only be described as a downgrade of the original national project is now seriously over budget. Aaccording to NBN Co, the $51billion project is now on track to be completed by 2020.

The bleak status quo only gets worse when the on-the-ground reality of the NBN rollout is considered. While fibre-to-premises rollout is supposed to be limited in the Coalition’s NBN, disturbing examples of misconduct in the NBN installations are highly concerning.

The image below shows one example of many in which heritage-listed buildings (in this case also public housing) are disrespected to the point that suggests an absolute lack of communication between NBN contractors, local government, or heritage agencies.

ImageOne heritage-listed house with two NBN installations (Judge Street, Woolloomooloo, NSW).

Who misses out?

In the Coalition’s NBN, the provision of universal high-speed capacity – as envisioned in the original NBN – has been transformed into a patchwork of final speeds and different quality of service. This leads to an important question about equity. It also puts the 60 early rollout locations in the spotlight as these could potentially be the only ones across the nation that enjoy fibre-to-premises NBN.

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My research points to the political motivations in the selection of these lucky 60 sites. Voting patterns in these locations were compared with all electorates in the federal elections from 2007 to 2013. The analysis shows the selections were skewed for potential political gain.

ALP-held seats were the main beneficiaries of the early NBN rollout; safe Coalition-held seats were the least likely to receive the infrastructure.

Tony Windsor, one of the three influential independent MPs in 2010, famously said of the NBN:

Do it once, do it right, and do it with fibre.

He secured priority access for his regional electorate to the early NBN.

Tony Windsor: ‘Do it once, do it right and do it with fibre.’

However, most regional localities were not that lucky. Indeed, research on the sociospatial distribution of the early NBN rollout shows the limited share of regional Australia.

What to do?

It is convenient to blame one political party for the state of chaos that the NBN is in right now. However, politicisation of the project has been part of the problem since day one.

Instead, we call for telecommunication infrastructure to be considered for what it really is: the backbone of the fast-growing digital economy; the foundation for innovation in the age of smart cities and big data; and a key pillar of social equity and spatial justice.

In reality, however, in the age of big data and open data, the lack of transparency around the NBN is shocking. In evidence to the parliamentary committee inquiry in March 2017, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission expressed concern about the lack of transparency on NBN performance.

The ConversationPolicing the leaks of NBN data is not going to clean up the mess. Quite the opposite: the Australian government needs to share the NBN data, so the exact nature and scale of the problems can be determined. Only then can we talk about finding a way forward in this long journey.

Tooran Alizadeh, Senior Lecturer, Director of Urban Design, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

This story has been updated since its original publication.


    • Turnbull’s just as much to blame and arguably now has more responsibility and ownership of this mess than.

      Abbott was PM for how long? Turnbull was the Communications minister under Abbott who oversaw the destruction of the NBN and carried on doubling down on it when in power.

      • Turnbull is also the one who blithely dismissed the petition with over 300k signatures to reconsider the swap from FTTP to FTTN, claiming a mandate from a narrowly won election where a significant portion of their votes resulted from wide-spread frustration at the Labor party playing musical chairs with the Prime Minister position. He is also the one who approved ongoing rollout of the FTTN system despite revelation that there is only a few hundred dollars per premises difference between FTTN and FTTdp, as opposed to thousands difference for FTTP, whilst providing massively improved delivery speeds closer to the original speeds specified.

        So yeah, Turnbull is more to blame than Abbott for the current state of NBN.

      • Yeah, I pretty much lost all respect for Turnbull when I heard him on the radio when he was Shadow Minister for Communications talking about how the coalition’s NBN plan were just as good as Labor’s FTTP plans and that he was merely following in the footsteps and best practices of companies like BT and AT&T who had declared FTTN was the best way to go.

        That told me he was either:
        a) Towing the party line even though he knew it was complete and utter bollocks.
        b) Completely clueless and unfit to be in a position to have anything to do with Australia’s Internet.

        The blame can definitely be pointed to Abbott for gutting the NBN, but Turnbull is equally culpable for putting his own ambition to become Prime Minister ahead of fighting for a reasonable level of Internet access for all of Australia – as was his job at the time.

    • Yawn…. angry SJW hates Tony Abbott but can’t put together a coherent argument. You’re such a cliché!

      The fact of the matter is, the promise of the NBN was one that couldn’t have been met and shouldn’t have been made.

      It’s easy for a vote grabbing, electioneering politician to promise a cash hand out if you vote for me… oh wait, Kevin07 actually did that – bad example. I should have said, it’s easy to make huge unachievable promises to get votes. But it’s disingenuous and acts directly opposed to the benefit of the people whom you purport to want to help the most.

      • Oh seriously. A conservative triggered at a slight against his hero politician. As if that’s not cliche enough.

        So much water has gone under the bridge that I really can’t be asked putting up an argument for people like you.

        Firstly, Tony Abbott’s stated objective was to destroy the NBN and that’s what he did. Even recently he want willing to negotiate with Labor in bipartisan fashion on climate. He stated he wanted a political fight. Frankly, politicians fighting is not why I pay my taxes. I want them to accomplish things. The guy is an oxygen thief.

        Secondly If you knew the first thing about infrastructure projects, you’d know that you don’t get what you want the day after the project is announced. The groundwork has to be laid first. That was still being done. It was not as far behind as the media and your Liberal overlords led you to believe.

        Lastly, you know nothing about me, SON. I’d hazard a guess that I’m old enough to be your grandfather. Spending another 10 minutes replying to you is simply is not worth $30 of my time. So don’t insult me with your “SJW” rubbish.

      • “The fact of the matter” 🙂 redundant and cliche here as well. The NBN was used as a political tool. It was not unachievable due to the technical contraints. It was unachievable due to politics – in this case the liberals.

    • Two words: Tony Fucking Abbott

      You’ve used the wrong 2 words. The right words were “Australian voters”. Abbott, Turnbull and the LNP from the very start were very upfront about what they would do to the NBN if elected. They delivered as promised and add chosen by the majority of electorates in Australia. Fact.

      To those who voted the LNP in during that critical moment in the NBN… this is on you.

  • It’s too late to fix. You will get what you’re given and you will pay for it regardless of the performance. Hopefully it won’t be too long before wireless technology reaches a point where it’s better (a statement that would never have been possible had the NBN been done right)…

  • FTTP is already gigabit (and more) capable through unthrottling/upgrading at the exchange/POI/backbone level.

    Whereas MTM (aka Mickey t’ Mouse) won’t get much faster and will always be limited by the signal:noise and attenuation issues of copper. Not to mention that the existing paired/coaxial cable system was barely fit for purpose pre-NBN and will be very expensive to maintain in any semblance of working order.

    I don’t support (or vote for) either major party and am heartily pissed off that this became a political football. Tony Windsor was on the money. We could have had 21st century infrastructure but instead are polishing a 19th century turd, all in the name of point scoring and hubris.

    • For some reason we have a gigantic tall poppy syndrome in Australia. A true world class telecommunications network gets proposed, and it got poopah’d to the point of irrelevancy.

    • Actually, fun fact, you probably do vote for one of the major parties, whether that was who you placed your vote for or not. In the last election, Labor actually did better than Liberal in the primary votes, it wasn’t til preferential voting was applied that Liberal overtook Labor. Each as bad as the other and all that, but it’s one reason I frequently abstain from voting. It’s against my conscience to knowingly support idiocy >.

      • Fun fact, if you tick all the boxes YOU choose your own preferences. Only idiots let someone else choose their preferences for them. Luckily for Parliament the rules have changed and you can no longer simply put 1 against a single candidate. That would have pissed off the major parties. The senate voting still had the ability to let you throw your preference away, that requires reform ASAP.

        Another fun fact, with preferential voting the most popular candidate does win. You’ll often hear this talk of primary vote. It is garbage unless the primary vote for each electorate achieves > 50%. Otherwise via the voter power of preferences, the most voted candidate wins. Unfortunately in Australia, most voters have no idea how the preferential votes system works, why it’s awesome, and how much power it gives to them. Unlike a first past the post system, which is easily manipulated to allow minority candidates to win, preferential voting is rock solid (as long as you’re not lazy and only vote above the line).

  • From the 2007 proposal:
    “The National Broadband Network will connect 98% of Australians to high speed broadband internet services of a minimum of 12 megabits per second.”
    The method Labor was putting forward on their napkin proposal was FTTN.
    The story goes that Telstra was not too impressed that Rudd wanted to use their network for free and asked for compo. Rudd told them bugger off we will do it all fibre, and the 4.7b proposal turned into the 43b FTTP proposal. Who knows if that was including the 12b pit and pipe rental or not.

    • It wasn’t so much the ‘free’ part that Telstra was unhappy about. It was happy to do the work, and take the governments money to do it, but was unhappy about the structural separation and freedom of access it was being asked to do\provide to receive the money and contract for the job.

      Fast forward, that structural separation occurred anyway.

    • And this goes back to the Howard-Abbott era, when people wanted a split of Telstra wholesale and Telstra retail, with retail being floated, and the government keeping the infrastructure. Instead they floated the whole thing as it was deemed more valuable, and then have significantly less control – like the use of pits and posts, and mobile networks in the bush.

  • I still fail to understand why roll it out in regions that no one (high percentage) give a hoot about it (regional).
    If they had started where a higher percentage were more keen on it they probably would have had better feedback and more positive reviews…
    Probably gotten more home fibre installs in before it started to get trimmed down the half-arsed design it is now…

    • Absolutely. Everyone claimed that “NBN should be run as a business” and the first thing they did was ignore Business 101 – aim to maximise the number of customer dollars you can take from day one.

      Sure, legislate to ensure that regional (and outer-suburban-sprawl) must be services but ffsake, start by getting urban customers, who are already shown to be prepared to pay, connected. Cashflow from day one changes everyones perspective on success, and doesn’t need Stormbahnfuhrer Conroy declaring that “if they don’t want it, we’ll force them to take it anyway…”

  • IMNSHO it was all about ideological long term goals. Each generation Labor has built some sort of nation building legacy project that has benefitted a large portion of the population and made Australia the place it is today. Medicare, free schools, the formerly free universities, welfare safety net, Gonski, NDIS. The LNP could not afford another one of these long term legacy projects to get up as they believe that all of these things are bad. They have done nothing but undercut every single one of these awesome things since they were introduced.

    Remember LNP govern for the minority wealthy to keep their fortunes intact. If something doesn’t improve their bottom line it doesn’t get support.

  • The article tries to politicise the original nbn from the beginning, claiming initial 60 fttp areas were based (selected) on voter patterns.

    The writer also says potentially those 60 areas may well be the only fttp areas. BUT — dont forget these kinds is selections are inevitable when politicians are involved. The difference is even with that “politicised” selection, all other areas were ALSO going to get fttp with Labour plans. However the writer’s prediction takes into effect only when we include LNPs MTM.

    Summary: LNP politicised the NBN, not Labour. By the way, I dont have any affiliation with either party, I’m a computer systems engineer, deeply dissatisfied about what happened to our “NATIONAL” bb network.

  • I achieve 113Mbps using the new standard test https://fast.com on Telstra’s Mobile Broadband. With nil dropouts.

    I must say I am only 500m from the tower but the point here is we are on the cusp of boycotting the NBN’s standard internet without compromise.

    • I agree – for 90% of home users, mobile broadband will be sufficient. I went on holidays recently and packed up my 4G modem for the trip – can’t do that with NBN.

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