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nbn™'s problems were known – in 2008, a year before its birth

PM says the network's a waste of money? It's also yet another wasted chance at real reform

Australia's telecommunications ombudsman last week reported a startling and unwelcome 159.3 per cent year-on-year jump in complaints, with more than 40,000 lodged about services on the national broadband network (NBN).

The usual tut-tutting took place and nbn™, the company that builds and operates the NBN, came in for criticism that reached a crescendo last night when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's 4 Corners program asked What's wrong with the NBN, with Class Zero premises that nbn™ has chosen not to address in its first wave of installations featured prominently as something that is wrong.

Ahead of the broadcast, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared the NBN a waste of money that his party inherited and has patched together as well as it can.

While nbn™'s current incarnation can point to a strong construction record, it's hamstrung by a policy that insists it pays its way and by doing so keeps prices high. Another problem nbn™ faces is that the policy-makers have missed a chance to ensure the company doesn't repeat the mistakes of the past that lead to buck-passing between wholesale and retail providers.

The sad thing is that it's not hard to learn about those mistakes.

The TIO's 2007 annual report [PDF], for example, reported “The big increase in complaint issues this year was driven by the internet category, which grew by 108.9 per cent.”

2007 was a time when ADSL services became widely adopted and gave new customers the thrill of figuring out whether infrastructure-owner Telstra or their chosen retailer was responsible for glitches. Neither Telstra or retailers was much help if you had a problem, hence the bump.

In 2008, Industry body the Communications Alliance noted that “the trend towards converged devices with software-based applications … and other ‘smart’ devices, add further complications and increase the interrelationships between networks, devices, software and content.”

“The increasing volume of the complaint issues reported by the TIO can be read as a symptom of these proliferating complexities in the telecommunications sector,” the Alliance said it its 2008 publication, Preparing for the Broadband World: Fostering Consumer Confidence through Collaboration and Partnerships. [PDF]

Fast-forward to 2017 and the TIO annual report uses startlingly-similar language to describe this year's rise in complaints.

“The supply chain for the NBN is complex, and complaints about services delivered over the NBN can be multi-faceted. Problems can arise with retailers, with other intermediaries, and sometimes the problem can be with the residential consumer’s or small businesses’ equipment,” the report says. “We are increasingly working with all the relevant parties in the supply chain to navigatethese complexities and get the problem fixed.”

That policy-makers have allowed nbn™ to make the same mistakes as its predecessors is lamentable, as is nbn™ only now taking serious steps to address the known complexity of the retailer/wholesaler interface, and the complications that sub-contracted labour introduces to the mix.

That these issues are only just being addressed, a decade after they were first identified, gives credence to those who argue that Australia's NBN will be second rate. The nation had a chance to build this business from scratch and knew of past experiences that suggested the likely sources of worry.

Our policy-makers and implementers have failed to do so.

And that, far more than the choice of medium for the last hundred metres, is a failure for which those responsible deserve to be called to account. ®

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