KEITH CONLON: Jane, you’ve probably seen the ads for the NBN, the National Broadband Network, this big pipe that’ll bring us high-speed everything and, indeed, it is… in the end, it’s about the future and not just in the home but in the business. How’s it going in South Australia? Well, it would appear from what happened in the Senate last night that not all is well in terms of the rollout as they call it here. To tell us more, Liberal Senator from South Australia Simon Birmingham. Good morning, Simon.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Keith, Jane and listeners.
KEITH CONLON: What did you learn last night?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Keith, unfortunately we learnt a lot of bad news last night. We’ve seen in South Australia, of course, a trial site down at Willunga and a small number of people connected down there but, beyond that, the NBN Co has started development in nine, what they are describing as, ‘volume rollout’ sites across South Australia and these were started around 19 months ago but none of the sites have actually seen a single connection as yet and this is…
KEITH CONLON: So, this is places like Prospect and Modbury and Valley View and so on. You would have expected that, by now… if they’ve nominated them as ‘volume rollout’ you’d expect something on the ground by now?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, you certainly would, Keith, NBN Co has advertised, long advertised, the fact that their average construction period is 12 months from commencement. Well, these sites have been under construction for up to 19 months and we don’t see any connections in any of these sites, be it Valley View or Modbury or Crafers or Aldinga, so the residents there have been promised something, something’s gone horribly wrong and this situation has occurred across South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
JANE REILLY: So, Simon, does that mean that the rollout’s been occurring in the eastern states and we’re missing out?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The rollout has progressed in the eastern states. We’ve seen, of course, countless delays to the NBN. Last year they released a new corporate plan that dramatically revised downwards their projections for how fast they would be connecting houses right across Australia but certainly in SA, WA and the NT you’ve got 25 sites like these nine ones in SA where construction’s been underway for up to 19 months and not a single connection having taken place.
KEITH CONLON: So, we’ve got two things happening – yesterday the NBN chief exec said ‘look, we’re a little bit behind, it was going to be 300,000 by June, now it’s going to be 286,000’… we’re not in there, obviously. Are you saying we’re just not getting anything?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, South Australia in theory will still get something within that 286,000 but it is less than would otherwise have been the case and we’ve seen so many write-downs of NBN’s projections that the confidence and faith you can have in them actually meeting these latest targets really is diminishing rather rapidly.
JANE REILLY: So, Simon, what’s the problem? Is it funding or is it the subcontractors who have been given the job of installing the NBN?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Jane, I wish I got a straight answer on that last night. One thing I’m certain of is that it’s not funding. The tens of billions of dollars being thrown at this project mean that we really are building the Taj Mahal of broadband networks right around the world, so the money is certainly there but clearly in terms of the management of the contract, the administration, something’s going terribly wrong. We’ve seen NBN Co lose many of its senior executives over the last few years, including two construction chiefs, so that demonstrates that there are clearly problems at the top. What we learnt last night was those problems are flowing right down through to connecting people who are expecting to get services.
KEITH CONLON: Have you got anything on paper, anything official, from NBN Co?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Ah, well, from NBN Co, sadly, Keith, we got a lot of gobbledegook on paper yesterday. These Senate Estimates come around every few months and last October was the previous opportunity to quiz NBN Co at Senate Estimates and we asked them a whole lot of questions which were taken on notice. Yesterday we had the rather contemptuous act that answers were only provided an hour before we were due to hear from NBN Co again despite, of course, many months having gone by since October, and the answers were a bunch of gobbledegook talk about granularity and the level of it achieved and no actual answers to the detail.
JANE REILLY: What does that mean?
KEITH CONLON: Have you got an example of that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, I’m happy to read it out to you and I apologise to the listeners in advance but when asked, for example, how many new customers have signed up to the NBN in Tasmania, the answer we were given was:
‘Now that NBN Co has reached volume rollout, it is impractical for NBN Co to provide ad hoc updates on financial and deployment metrics to a level of granularity not already provided for in public releases, parliamentary reporting processes and regular rollout information provided on our website for the use of access seekers.’
From what I can tell in that, I can’t work out how many new customers they’ve got in Tasmania, but I would have thought that would have been a fairly simple thing for them to answer.
JANE REILLY: So, Simon, what happens now? I mean, you’re putting the pressure on; you’re trying to get answers. How do we make it happen for South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Jane, we will continue to put the pressure on but there’s a broader concern here and that is that areas like Tennyson, Athelstone or Woodforde… these are areas that have genuine blackspots, yet they don’t get any priority under this Government’s NBN rollout, so from a Coalition perspective we think there are cheaper ways of doing this, faster ways of doing this and, importantly, ways where you prioritise getting services to the blackspots, the regional areas that are underserviced and actually make sure that if government’s going to spend billions of dollars intervening in this market, you target your actions where they’re most needed rather than simply trying to ‘gold-plate’ infrastructure across the board.
KEITH CONLON: Senator Simon Birmingham, thanks very much. He’s a South Australian Liberal Senator and that’s action from the Senate, in a Senate committee, in the last 24 hours. It does sound like we’re dipping out.
JANE REILLY: Yeah, it does. I mean…
KEITH CONLON: There’s just not enough granularity on the ground here.
JANE REILLY: What the heck is that?
KEITH CONLON: It’s a way of saying that we’ve got no idea what you’re doing down our street.