“This thing is enormously complex … You can’t just say one size fits all,” NBN boss Bill Morrow tells a group of journalists gathered in the company’s Brisbane office on a sunny Thursday morning. The boardroom where journalists have been placed resembles something out of Utopia. There are posters showing off NBN services and a motivational sign on how to hold a good meeting, with a QR code linking to a Ted talk on “how to save the world from bad meetings”.
“We would literally have to walk every home, every building, and determine with an engineer what is the most economical way to get the broadband service in and which technology is best suited for that.”
For most people the NBN is an abstract concept, a political football, or something they rage about on internet forums and the comments section as they struggle to get a connection and wonder why the government is getting it wrong, but few actually get up close to see it being installed themselves.
Technology journalists from Sydney and Melbourne were dragged from their desks to the Sunshine State for the day to get a closer look at exactly how the government-owned company charged with implementing Malcolm Turnbull’s “multi-technology mix” actually works in practice. It’s my second such trip. The last time I was taken to Kiama on the south coast of New South Wales to look at what was then the full fibre-to-the-premises rollout in 2011 under the former Labor government. Back then, it actually was one-size-fits-all, and it was all about fibre being rolled into the ground. Now, well, it’s complicated.
We are loaded up into a Murrays bus and driven 20 minutes down the road. In that time, Morrow sits with me and I attempt to interview him on a noisy, moving bus on our way to the destination (you can read that interview here). Morrow has been with NBN since shortly after the election. He has a strong American accent, but he has been in Australia for long enough that the language has begun to seep in; he uses words like “bloody” enough to sound like he’s at the pub.
Continuity and change, Turnbull’s ill-thought-out slogan taken from HBO’s Veep, also happens to describe the NBN’s current position. The Turnbullean version of the NBN is vastly different to the Labor model, but many of the issues encountered on the Kiama trip still plague the network.
As we arrive at a large brown shed, fixed to the side of an ageing red brick Telstra exchange building, we’re told to don bright yellow safety vests. “They’re $22 if you want to keep them,” we’re told. I’ll survive without. “Watch out for the dead ants.”
Panels open, lights flash, a techie using more acronyms than we can deal with explains where all the wires lead out to, and then we’re back on the bus.
Time and technology are working against the company. The network in 2020 will be entirely different from the one planned from the six-week review NBN conducted when the Coalition came into government; that much is certain, Morrow says.
We’re driven to the base of Mount Cotton. As we disembark on Double Jump Road, we face three large blocks of land. On the one side, trees, on the other, rolling green hills. These three houses, we’re told, will be getting fibre-to-the-premises for $40,000 each because they are not in the right area for satellite, and powering a node would be too expensive. This is what you “see” when you are taken on a tour to “see” the NBN: blinking lights in sheds and ordinary landscapes.
The bus winds up at Mount Cotton, and we are moved into a set of NBN-branded four-wheel drives that look like something out of Jurassic Park. At the top of the mountain, past a house with an alarming set of moulded clay heads stuck to each fence post, we’re greeted by a large barbwire fence and long grass. We’re told to avoid the grass for snakes. Behind the barbed wire is yet another Telstra exchange, with a large tower for mobile services.
We stop for the executives to reluctantly have their photos taken on the mountainside by NBN’s hired photographer, plus a group photo of the journalists on the mountain. We’re shown the new technology NBN is trialling to get rid of even more copper for fibre to the distribution point — which is one step closer to the home than fibre to the node, but not so close as fibre to the premises — before Morrow departs for the day back to the office, and we head for lunch.
We are loaded back into the bus after a stop for lunch. Already half an hour behind, we need to get to the coastal Redcliffe area to check out what Stephen Conroy earlier in the week had called “Operation Clusterfuck” up close. A decision is made to skip visiting an exchange and instead we head straight to one of the townhouses connected to the cable network. Turnbull’s grand plan before the 2013 election was to have about 3 million people connected to the cable networks by the 2016 election, but NBN is about to switch on the network in one of its first locations in June this year. “Expect delays,” a traffic sign informs us as we merge onto the highway. Indeed.
Eventually we arrive at a set of townhouses called Zodiac Court. One NBN contractor says the company has been able to convince all eight home owners in the court to let them in to install the wires for the NBN. Only three of them actually want a service.
“A lot of them are old and don’t have a computer,” he says. But those who don’t want it are aware that it’ll be better for the value of their houses if they have it just in case. We’re shown another site where the company has had to introduce a node in order to get more customers onto the cable network. It stands 15 feet tall, attached to a power pole, with a large grey box fixed to the side of the pole.
“Is it supposed to make that buzzing noise?” I ask. That’s the power for it, we’re told. Unfortunately for the retirees living in the house behind the power pole, that dim hum is there permanently. One journalist remarks that, if he lived there, he would likely take an axe to the cable box in the name of a peaceful night’s sleep.
Back on the bus and rushing back to the airport, I can’t message the Crikey crew about my travels, as Telstra suffers its second major national mobile network outage in just two months.
*Josh Taylor travelled to Brisbane as a guest of NBN.