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Wednesday, 04 April 2018 11:00

Spin lasts only for a season: Morrow's NBN Co lesson Featured

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When Bill Morrow took over as head of the NBN Co, the company tasked with building the national broadband network, he was fully aware with what he had to contend.

The Coalition Government had come to office with a changed policy, going from the all-fibre Labor model, to what was called a multi-technology mix with fibre-to-the-node taking pride of place.

The prime minister at the time, Tony Abbott, had handed the job to Malcolm Turnbull with the directive to "kill the NBN". Turnbull picked the technologies, with HFC being pushed as the saviour of the rollout.

Morrow was an experienced hand in the telco business, having been with Vodafone, and probably had an inkling of what he was taking on but the offer of a $3 million-plus salary would, no doubt, have been a powerful magnet. And so, he set out on what ultimately turned out to be a path that really went nowhere.

But then he can blame nobody, for he took it on, knowing full well that the government finally aimed to sell the network and that it would never be put on-budget as it would make the bottom line look really bad. As the years went by and the national deficit increased by leaps and bounds, the chances of the NBN being considered national infrastructure became less and less.

Until the first half of 2017, Morrow's policy was that of adopting the glass half-full attitude, probably in the hope that something would give. Spin, prodigious amounts of it, were spread far and wide in the hope that it would work.

Under Morrow, NBN Co cultivated its favourite media outlets (iTWire is not among that crowd) but in the end the raw truth had to be confronted: you cannot put lipstick on a pig.

The first time that Morrow said something which did not please his masters in Canberra was in October last year when he spoke about the indisputable fact that the network was never going to break even.

Pointing out that the company was making $43 per user per month and it needed $52 to break even, Morrow said: "We, NBN [Co] and the board, are betting that future applications are going to bring more value into homes, that they are going to need more bandwidth or more data and that the retail service providers will pay us more."

This was a gamble the company had taken, he said, and if it did not work out then it would have a problem.

A month or so later, problems with the HFC network ensured that things would go from bad to worse.

There were numerous interventions by government thereafter, with the RSPs also joining in the chorus that seemed to never veer from criticising NBN Co.

Once it became clear that monitoring of the network would not help his cause, Morrow had no option but to think of the next step in life.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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