NBN CEO Bill Morrow (Pic by Adam Hollingsworth)

If there is a change in the technology policy of the NBN after the next election, the company is in a much better place to deal with in than it was in 2013, according to CEO Bill Morrow.

Following the election of the Abbott-Turnbull government in 2013, NBN was tasked with implementing then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull’s NBN policy of a “multi-technology mix”. The company was told to let existing contracts to build fibre-to-the-premises run to their end dates, and begin drawing up plans to instead choose technologies that could be rolled out more cheaply.

Before it could do that, there were six reviews by NBN and the government, a change in the executive team and board, renegotiated contracts with construction companies and Telstra and Optus, and new IT systems. NBN is now, more than two years later, gaining momentum in its use of the existing copper and cable networks in the NBN with the aim of completing the network by 2020 for between $46 billion and $56 billion — much more than the limited funding the government was originally planning to offer, which had been capped at $29.5 billion.

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Far from what some have said would settle the debate over whether or not the government should have stuck with Labor’s policy for the fibre-to-the-premises NBN, the government breaking the fundamental pre-election promise to have everyone connected to 25Mbps download speeds by this year means the issue remains a hot topic. There have been countless NBN Senate committee hearings, leaked PowerPoint presentations and debates over ABC censorship. Those who want a return to a full fibre NBN are pinning their hopes on Labor switching back to the policy if it wins the next election. So far the party’s communications spokesperson, Jason Clare, has yet to reveal exactly what Labor would do if returned to government, outside of saying Labor’s plan would involve “more fibre”.

If that eventuates, NBN is prepared. Speaking to Crikey during a visit to a number of NBN rollout sites in Queensland last week, Morrow said that the company was in a much better position now than it was three years ago to deal with potential changes.

“There’s a lot of people when they first came in, they were hired with the premise that this was forever the way it was going to be, so they internally said: ‘OK, I fit into this and this is what I’m going to do’, and it was hard to make the change because they didn’t know what it meant.”

Using a term favoured by the Prime Minister, Morrow says NBN teaches its staff to be agile, and be prepared for change.

Morrow argues this agility is demonstrated by the company trialling fibre-to-the-distribution-point, with technology that will allow NBN to get fibre even closer to the premises, meaning better internet service through using less of the legacy copper. The company announced last week it would trial the technology in Sydney and Melbourne with 30 NBN staff after leaks showed it was still considering the option. The technology uses the power in a person’s own home to power itself, thereby removing the need for NBN to find a power connection — something required for FttN but not required for FttP.

On the tour, journalists were shown examples of how NBN deals with different terrains and scenarios. For example, in a set of three premises on Double Jump Road in Mount Cotton, to service three premises, NBN would have had to spend $200,000 in order to power a node to the location. Instead NBN is spending $120,000 to build fibre to the premises for all three. NBN staff in the area indicated that despite this high cost, the remaining area — filled with all FttP premises — would still come within the company’s expected budget.

Telstra has provided data to NBN on the location of every premises, to allow the company to initially work out what sort of technology would suit each best, but Morrow said it was difficult to determine “from a desk in Sydney” what the terrain will be like out in the field.

“I think things are going to evolve and change over time. The idea of us saying here’s how many of each of these technologies we expect to do over the course of the next five years is almost silly to even put out there because it is inevitably going to change a lot,” Morrow said.

He says the company can’t really predict what technology would be best for a specific property.

“The more information we put out there, that’s what people think they can get and if they make decisions like buying homes, that’s not really fair for them, and therefore not really appropriate for us to put out.”

As Crikey has reported before, over the past few months there has been a concerted campaign from someone connected to the NBN to leak documents aimed at showing the technology choices favoured by Turnbull are not measuring up. NBN refuses to comment on the documents — although it effectively did with last week’s announcement — but Morrow says NBN has emphasised to staff that the leaks are potentially against the law, not to mention company policy.

Morrow says he expects there to be leaks ahead of the election, just as there were leaks before to the 2013 election.

In a Senate committee hearing last week, former communications minister Stephen Conroy said he was aware that NBN’s attempt to integrate the cable networks owned by Telstra and Optus was internally referred to by NBN staff as “Operation Clusterfuck”. Some staff Crikey spoke to denied this, but there is no doubt that the HFC (cable) has presented challenges for NBN. The company will launch about 18,000 services in Redcliffe, Queensland, in June, 21 months after the Coalition came to government. At the time of the election Turnbull said he believed HFC could be upgraded quickly.

While the former Telstra-owned HFC network is expected to be integrated better into the NBN, concerns remain about whether the upgrades NBN will make to the Optus network will cope with a sudden swell of users on the network as NBN begins wiring up all the premises Optus did not cover when rolling out its network either because they were in apartment blocks or they weren’t built when the network was constructed.

As per the technology-agnostic instructions from government, where NBN can’t use the HFC network, it is also expected to use FttN or another technology in its place.

Morrow downplayed issues with the cable networks, saying NBN left cable to last in order to get the other technologies working.

“We had a priority on getting the current FttP that was in the pipe, running and perfecting that process because that’s something that was immediate. The next priority was getting FttN addressed. That was always seen as the first one we wanted to roll out. As we do see that quite positively, that has been receiving more attention within the company than HFC, and it is deliberate to put that second.”

“There’s only so many things you can do at the same time.”

*Josh Taylor travelled to Brisbane as a guest of NBN.