Thursday, 01 June 2017 09:10

As plaints grow, NBN Co blindly proceeding with rollout: expert Featured


A senior network engineering expert has slammed the NBN Co for the "growing mess" in the rollout of the national broadband network and said it was high time for the top management to stop blaming others and to work to improve consumer satisfaction.

In a scathing op-ed published by, a site that provides news and commentary on public policy issues related to the ICT sector in Australia, Mark Gregory, an associate professor in network engineering at RMIT University, said while the list of complaints about NBN Co's failure to address customer complaints was growing, the response of chief executive Bill Morrow was to try and make the problem seem trivial.

Gregory, who has been a critic of the NBN in its current form, said that a growing army of spin merchants and media handlers was aiding Morrow in his quest to play down the issues that the network was facing.

"Every aspect of what NBN Co has been tasked to do is coming under scrutiny and increasing criticism," Gregory wrote.

"The added complexity, cost blowouts and business model chaos caused by the shift to the multi-technology mix cannot be hidden for ever, and day by day the extent of the mess at NBN Co is becoming more apparent."

He scornfully pointed out that 7½ years into its rollout, the company that was carrying out the project was still unable to say where it should be installed and what technology should be used.

mark gregory"As much as 20% to 30% of the copper and HFC networks are not fit for purpose and NBN Co is continuing to blunder ahead," Gregory claimed.

"NBN Co recently claimed that new discrepancies found in the Geocoded National Address File (G-NAF) database are partially to blame for the constant upheaval, but after 7½ years from the commencement of the rollout, this is nothing but a lame excuse for ongoing mismanagement."

Things had come to such a point that the NBN Co had now been exempted from the original legislative requirement that the legacy copper network should be turned off 18 months after a region became ready for service.

"In a tricky and quite remarkable sleight of hand at the end of last year, the government issued a regulation that permits NBN Co to dodge this legislated requirement by effectively shifting premises into a special 'service continuity region' where the operation of the legacy copper network will be extended for six months," Gregory pointed out.

He said that the government had estimated that about 10% of homes in any region "would be put in the too-hard basket, designated Service Class 0 and left for two years or more before action was taken to connect these premises to the NBN. Many... are not likely to be connected to the NBN before 2020".

And, he added, "The number of premises in the too-hard basket now stands at more than 145,000 and this number appears to be growing daily as NBN Co strives to 'complete' the NBN by 2020."

NBN Co said on Wednesday that the number of premises that could connect to the network was now five million and activations had taken place at 2.2 million of these, with about 130,000 people signing up each month. But it made no mention was made of whether those who took up connections were able to achieve the speeds for which they signed up.

Gregory contrasted the NBN Co's handling of customer complaints with what is taking place in New Zealand, where a company named Chorus and three others are rolling out FttP to the entire country.

He pointed out that customers in the two countries who had an issue with the respective networks were expected to contact their retail service providers, and if this did not solve the issue, then they could complain to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (Australia) or the Telecommunications Dispute Resolution (New Zealand).

"At the end of the 2016 financial year, there were about 8.8 NBN-related complaints made in Australia to the TIO per 1000 connections. In New Zealand, there were about 6.8 Chorus-related complaints made to the TDR per 10,000 connections," Gregory said.

At this time, NBN Co had about 1.65 million active connections and Chorus had about 1.23 million active connections.

Gregory said while active connections for NBN Co and Chorus were in the same order of magnitude now, the number was expected to soon diverge over coming months given that there are about 12 million premises in Australia and approximately three million in New Zealand.

The difference in complaint handling was marked: "NBN Co's response to the growing number of consumer complaints has been to blame retail service providers, its construction partners, and any other organisation that it can for the growing malaise."

But Chorus took a different tack: it decided to address the complaints by changing the way it does business and how it manages the FttP rollout.

NBN Co had outsourced construction to industry partners, thus creating several additional layers of management bureaucracy and often creating scheduling conflicts between itself, the construction partner and the construction team's sub-contractors.

Chorus had created a two-stage rollout process which it managed by itself, rolling out the pits, ducts and other infrastructure and then sending out a team to put fibre in the ducts and connect premises. The rollout team also aided consumers to connect household computers and other devices to the network before leaving.

"When this is complete and the consumer is fully connected over the FttP network, Chorus hands over the premises management to the consumer-selected retail service provider," Gregory said.

"By taking control of the... rollout Chorus has reduced consumer concern about the construction process and outcomes. This has been a major achievement by Chorus."

In contrast, NBN Co had taken further steps to wash its hands of the process, by pushing "aspects of the consumer premises set-up onto retail service providers. (It) recently asked the ACCC to agree to shifting the network boundary back from premises to the nodes, thereby shifting construction-related problems onto consumers".

"The construction process being utilised by NBN Co is nothing short of a quagmire and it is little wonder there are so many complaints to the TIO and the ACCC," Gregory said. "The ACCC should not be an active and willing participant that aids NBN Co’s unconscionable plans."

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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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