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NBN Co provides more alternative facts, paid for by the taxpayer

When do you know for certain that the folk who run a public sector project such as the NBN have realised that they will fail to achieve their goals and need to retreat into a world of fantasy? When you start seeing puff pieces in the media, paid for by the unwitting taxpayer, glorifying the project in question.

In short, some "alternative facts". The NBN Co has expertise in this direction and thus it should come as no surprise that it spent a goodly sum on getting 45 minutes of puff stuff put to air by Channel Nine on 13 April.

Before going any further, you, gentle reader, can watch the programme, the first in a series called Everyday Innovators, right here. You will need to register; hurry, because the video is available only until midnight on 11 May.

This writer hardly watches commercial TV, so it is thanks to the ABC's Media Watch programme last night that one became aware of this waste of public money. It appears that the NBN Co has spent $2.2 million on advertising with Nine since 26 January.

The programme covers a number of businesses and voluntary projects that would not be possible to run in their locations unless one has fast broadband. But to portray the NBN as being a problem-free network is somewhat distant from the reality. As Media Watch pointed out, there were 13,000+ complaints about the NBN to the Telecommunications Ombudsman in 2016. The puff piece didn't pull too many eyeballs: there were 169,000 viewers across the capital cities, and 50 other programmes, including a repeat of Hawaii Five O, did better.

Nine NBN Co puff piece.

Low-key: One of two places in the programme where the NBN Co makes an appearance.

There are only two indications that the NBN is in any way involved with the programme. Once, the NBN Co logo appears on a computer screen. And then, right at the end, the same logo appears again. But as Media Watch discovered, the company had oversight and the final version needed the tick of approval from its boffins.

The footage is slick as one would expect from any kind of PR puff. But I spotted one case of amateur hour: at 28:00, a doctor walks on screen from a standing start. You can see him start his meaningful stride without straining too much. Poor editing, and it shows.

It would appear that there is an NBN in Australia — the puff piece showed case studies from the Torres Strait to Melbourne to remote places like Longreach in Queensland — which provides supremely fast, fail-safe speeds. I doubt whether many people have experienced it, else there would not be a litany of complaints every time one even touches on the topic.

Now, there is no doubt that if — and that's a big if — the NBN did provide gigabit speeds all around the nation (except in parts where it was physically impossible), then businesses such as those in this programme would indeed be able to operate anywhere and everywhere.

The sad truth is that the politicians do not realise that the fanciful scenarios depicted in the programme could be duplicated a thousand-fold in real life – if only we had a full-fibre network.

But NBN Co chief executive Bill Morrow now seems to have beaten a hasty retreat and is apparently content with spin to give the notion that the sky is blue, the grass is green, God's in his heaven, and all's right with the world. I guess that when you draw $3.6 million from the public purse every year you can live with those illusions.

One word of caution: keep a paper bag (the kind they give you on planes) or a bucket close by while watching the programme; given the surfeit of weasel words (amazing, awesome, win-win, a whole new level etc) and product placement, there's every chance you might want to throw up. This writer almost did.

The programme could be watched without any buffering because this writer happened to get up at 4.30am. That's life in a first-world country with fraudband.

Screenshots: Courtesy Channel Nine.

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.