Questioning Turnbull's 'open and independent' NBN reviews

In an interview with The Washington Post Prime Minister Tony Abbott described the National Broadband Network (NBN) FTTP rollout as part of the “the wonderful, wacko world of the former government.”

But, it seems Abbott being equally as “wacky” if he expects Australian voters to believe that the “open and independent” NBN reviews are anything other than a front for a change management process.

The Australian public has been led to believe that an open and independent review has commenced into the NBN but what we’re being told is not what is happening over at NBN Co.

Stacking the deck

The communications minister Malcolm Turnbull’s review of the NBN is most extraordinary. He has brought in a couple of former close colleagues to oversee the review, put them to work as employees of NBN Co at significant cost, hired three consulting companies to assist them, again utilising scarce NBN Co funds, and asked anyone that had an unalterable stake in the former NBN approach to leave NBN Co.

Is this how an open and independent review is carried out?

Whatever happened to setting up an independent review commission with a chair and panel, terms of reference and budget to carry out a diligent review that includes public hearings?

A key aspect of an open and independent public review is to ensure that the review panel includes people or organisations with differing views – is this what we see happening at NBN Co? No.

Where are the review terms of reference? Not available outside government and NBN Co apparently so how can the government claim the review is anything but opaque?

JB Rousselot, one of the two key executives brought in by Turnbull has been hired by NBN Co as the Head of Strategy and Transformation – or should his job title read Head of Change Management Strategy?

Justin Milne, the other key executive hired by NBN Co at Turnbull’s behest, has made statements critical of Labor’s NBN approach.

It is apparent that the only way to get a seat at the NBN review table is to be a supporter of the Coalition’s NBN plan.

Of the three companies brought in to assist with the review Boston Consulting Group (BCG) is the most interesting - for all the wrong reasons. BCG will participate in the review of the timing, financials and product offers under alternate models of delivering very fast broadband.

BCG has the task of assisting with reviewing the technical solution to be used for the NBN. The question is how will BCG be able to do this objectively when BCG developed a strategy that argues against national one-size-fits-all rollouts?

In a BCG article titled “A New Approach to Network Rollouts” BCG argues for an Integrated Broadband Solution (IBS) which is described as:

At the core of IBS is the recognition that different regions within a national rollout area are different, with characteristics and market potential that vary—so a solution that works well in one region may not be needed, or successful, in another. Fibre to the home, for example, fares best in high-density, affluent areas but is hard-pressed to turn a profit in more spread-out regions. IBS forgoes the one-size-fits-all rollout in favour of a more targeted approach, with telcos tailoring their offerings for a mosaic of customer needs and local conditions. And it does so in a way that is practical, manageable, and cost effective.

BCG’s argument is flawed because it does not take into account national needs but looks to optimise telco returns by focusing on high value inner urban areas at the expense of lower value regional and remote areas.

BCG’s approach is not appropriate because Australia is a nation where Australians expect equal access to essential services irrespective of where they live.  And yes, the Internet is now an essential service.

BCG’s approach might be appropriate for the US but not here, so how can BCG be seen to be an independent and unbiased review participant?

Google became so frustrated by the US telco industries use of flawed arguments similar to the BCG IBS that it introduced Google Fiber. Google Fiber has been an outstanding success and US telcos are now scrambling to adopt FTTP to compete with Google.

And it is important to remember that regional and remote Australians fought for many years in the 1940s and 50s to ensure that regional and remote areas were provided with access to telecommunications services long enjoyed by people in urban areas.

This successful fight led to government legislation enshrining the right to universal service. Following a flawed 2012 government review of universal service the battle to have universal service extended to include equal rights in a NBN world has commenced.

The great copper unknown

Turnbull and NBN Co have yet to answer key questions about the review. The most important question yet to be answered is how the review can occur without Telstra providing complete and open access to all available information regarding Telstra’s copper network.

How can an open and independent review of Telstra’s copper network occur without a public NBN review commission that has access to appropriate respected independent experts?

Telstra is under no obligation to provide NBN Co or the government with complete details of the copper network. Telstra will rightly work hard to optimise any financial opportunity from the government’s plans to utilise copper within the NBN.

Let us be clear on this point. Telstra was asked yesterday if it had provided details of the copper network to NBN Co or the government. A Telstra spokesman chose not to answer the question directly but responded by saying: “we are cooperating with the government and NBN Co and we are constructively engaged”.

Failure to openly and independently review Telstra’s copper network will make the NBN review report little else than a very useful doorstop.

It has been suggested that one approach to achieve the government’s objectives would be for NBN Co to purchase Telstra’s copper network and wholesale division. Splitting Telstra’s wholesale and retail divisions into two companies should have occurred decades ago, and is not likely to occur now because Telstra derives significant income from backhaul, international and other fibre assets.

The NBN has been constrained to a very small part of the overall network and prevented from connecting to vehicles, planes, trains and boats which significantly reduces revenue opportunities.

The nail in the coffin

The nail in the coffin of the so-called open and independent review is the refusal by the government to permit people and organisations with an alternate view to participate in the review. And to keep the review within NBN Co, where it can be cloistered and hidden from public view, confirms the deception.

We have certainty now that government is not carrying out an open and independent review of the NBN so what is the government actually doing?

Well it is time to call the review what it is – a closed internal change management process being carried within NBN Co out at great expense to the Australian taxpayer by a select hand-picked team, some of which are Turnbull’s former colleagues.

How can we believe that the review outcome will be anything other than a lightweight incomplete technically flawed justification for the government’s NBN plan?

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Mark Gregory is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University. You can follow @_markagregory on Twitter.