The timing couldn’t not have been more exquisite as Bill Morrow, the chief executive of Malcolm Turnbull and Ziggy Switkowski’s shambling joke of a national broadband network, was grilled about the fast-emerging 5G mobile broadband technology at a Senate hearing on April 10.
Morrow’s appearance when he admitted the company was trialing super-fast 5G wireless to plug gaps but did not intend to compete with established mobile companies, came less than a week after he announced he would, like a rat, abandon the sinking NBN ship. Because while providing NBN Co with an essential fix, the same technology would well consign the project to its final doom.
Morrow’s background is in mobile tech — he had been airlifted into Australia to save the Vodafone-Hutchison joint venture, when under-investment in networks finally caught up with them, sending customer numbers spiraling to an abyss. He was previously CEO of Vodafone Europe and President at Vodafone KK in Japan.
With each month. it is ever clearer that multi technology mix (MTM) NBN is a bandaid solution no commercial company would touch: an unholy mishmash of various fibre technologies, ageing copper wire based ASDL and all-but-obsolete hybrid fiber coaxial cable, whose 1990s rollout wars sent telco competition in Australia to the edge of oblivion. MTM, earmarked for millions of NBN homes, is now next to useless. This week Morrow admitted this, in so many words. He has no idea how big a hole this has punched in the business.
The next round of mobile technology, 5G, with its significantly improved speed (eventually 20 gigabytes per second), capacity, connectivity and efficiency will eat the NBN’s lunch. Already, 4G offers speeds far in excess of anyone stuck more than a few hundred metres from and the ADSL “nodes” that make up the majority of the MTM NBN. ADSL speeds deteriorate very quickly between the node and the house, and the distance from home to node can often be one to two kilometers long. Older copper only exacerbates this.
Put simply, even without the impending arrival of 5G, much of the tech used in the NBN is already being rendered obsolete by mobile tech.
It’s not only competitive technology that threatens the NBN’s ever-changing but always precarious business model, but the intensely competitive structure of Australia’s mobile sector. Three major national networks — Telstra, Optus and Morrow’s old shop Vodafone — all fiercely compete for customers. The NBN can only offer, at a wholesale level, several tiers of vanilla, uncustomised services at various speeds for resale.
The mobile companies have what NBN Co does not: multi-million strong, fairly loyal customer bases, both regular consumers and small to mid sized businesses that power Australia’s economy. In recent months they have intensified competition, not just with each other but with the NBN, bringing prices down and ramping up the size data packages concurrently with the convenience of mobility and user-friendly smart phones.
It’s too early to judge what will really happen to the NBN, but Morrow could only ever work with what he was given: a shit sandwich that Turnbull and Switkowski created with the sole aim of palming off a mess handed to them by Peta Credlin.
The rest, including the increasingly benighted NBN, is history; and so too will be the PM, if there is any justice for the Australian taxpayer.