It's hard to overlook all the time NBN Co spent chasing technologically inferior solutions that have cost us billions, writes Jennifer Dudley-Nicholson.
It's hard to overlook all the time NBN Co spent chasing technologically inferior solutions that have cost us billions, writes Jennifer Dudley-Nicholson.

'Aussies deserve an NBN apology for $54b dud'

ANALYSIS

There is a famous quote about Australia's National Broadband Network: "Do it once, do it right, and do it with fibre."

Australia finally adopted the last element of that strategy on Wednesday as NBN Co unveiled plans to update some of its connections with fast fibre optic technology.

But it took years longer than necessary to get here, will take years longer to get the technology into homes, will not be as good as it could have been, and will cost Australians billions of dollars more than it could have or should have.

While we should be celebrating the announcement of high-speed fibre broadband, it's hard to overlook all the time NBN Co spent chasing technologically inferior solutions; the years politicians spent defending a slapped-together product while so many countries sped past us; the years buying more than 50,000km of copper wire to replace ageing phone lines with still-outdated lines.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher announced an upgrade to some NBN connections today. Picture: AAP Image/Joel Carrett
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher announced an upgrade to some NBN connections today. Picture: AAP Image/Joel Carrett

The more controversial, recycled broadband connections to Australian homes and businesses - those that use phone lines and pay-TV cable - will now be replaced or upgraded for households and businesses that request it at a cost of $4.5 billion over the next three years.

This build-a-dud-and-improve-it-later approach is incredibly hard to defend but you shouldn't expect to hear any admissions from those in charge of it today.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher is still ardently defending the Coalition Government's flawed and widely criticised approach to connecting Australians even while he backflips on the policy in place since 2013.

Mr Fletcher told the ABC that hooking up Australian homes and businesses to what telecommunications experts warned was slow, outdated technology was in fact a "sensible business approach" and showed the Government was being "careful with taxpayers' capital".

Yes, for those playing along at home, paying $51 billion for a network that is not fit for purpose at its completion, and another $4.5 billion to replace many of its connections to homes isn't a waste at all.

And what about then-prime minister Tony Abbott's assertion that Australians didn't need high-speed broadband, and that he was "absolutely confident that 25 (megabits per second) is going to be enough, more than enough, for the average household"?

This was wrong then. It's laughable now.

Asked if he regretted this approach, Mr Fletcher kept his defences high.

"We set out our strategic review, which was to roll it out as quickly as possible, using the multi-technology mix, and then be able to upgrade when there was demand," he said. "And so we are in that position now."

Some of the NBN’s most controversial connections will be replaced under a $4.5 billion upgrade.
Some of the NBN’s most controversial connections will be replaced under a $4.5 billion upgrade.

In the meantime, Australia has plummeted to 61st place in fixed broadband speeds worldwide.

Singapore has the fastest speeds in our region and the world, but even countries including Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Estonia, and Kuwait fare much better than we do when it comes to download speeds.

Long-time sporting rival New Zealand is massively outplaying us, boasting more than double the average download speed available in Australia, earning it 20th spot, and is likely to keep doing so for years.

Despite this result, advice on how to get our multibillion-dollar investment right and right first time has not been hard to find.

Telecommunications analysts recommended fibre. Internet service providers did too. Even the NBN's own architects preferred it.

The NBN's first chief executive, Mike Quigley, who had been charged with rolling out fibre connections to 93 per cent of Australian premises by 2021, admitted the project was slow to start but was eventually "knocking over problems one by one and ramping itself into a scale rollout" without increasing costs.

By 2016, the cost of installing fibre connections had fallen, and Quigley told an audience at the University of Melbourne it was an expensive mistake for Australia to sink funds into a "backward-looking plan based on copper".

"To spend billions of dollars to build a major piece of national infrastructure that just about meets demand today but doesn't allow for any significant growth in that demand over the next 10 or 20 years is incredibly shortsighted," he warned.

In 2018, NBN Co's former chief technology officer Gary McLaren told me the project had failed to produce a "future-proof network" and Australia should urgently change course to adopt a fibre rollout.

"The message coming from NBN Co and the Government is that the job is being done and it's being finished but the reality is that there's still a lot of work to do and Australia is still a long way behind the rest of the world," Mr McLaren said. "Billions and billions of dollars would be needed to catch up."

This warning was ignored too.

Whether the Government is willing to provide it or not, all Australians deserve an apology for how the biggest infrastructure project in our history has been downgraded, deprioritised, and mismanaged.

Labor's early plans set the bar high but were sloppily executed.

The Coalition's plans set the bar too low and left Australians with technology that needed an instant upgrade.

Ultimately, this project should have been beyond politics. We will all pay the price for its failure to load first time.

Originally published as Aussies deserve an NBN apology for $54bn dud


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