(Image: CEBIT Australia/Flickr)

Information provided to a Senate committee this week included the revelation that more than 850 executives at the National Broadband Network (NBN) were being paid more than $200,000 a year — about the same as the base salary of a federal backbencher, as one MP on the committee observed.

That’s also more than the 800 employees NBN Co retrenched in July claiming they were surplus to requirements now that the rollout is (theoretically) complete.

The question is not so much the salaries per se. It is whether Australia is getting value for money from the NBN. Are the execs earning their keep?

Well, firstly, this vital infrastructure project is far from done. In fact, the government has just allocated $3.5 billion and ordered the company to start upgrading the network so homes using failing copper wires can be provided with a fibre connection if the customer needs fast broadband.

Unfortunately fibre is only going to be rolled out “on demand” and will come at a much higher monthly subscription fee — although the specifics on this remain unclear. Former NBN Co CEO Bill Morrow famously told an earlier Senate hearing that if people wanted high speed internet they’d have to pay extra for it. Those chickens have just come home to roost.

It appears the extra cost will now be averaged out and borne by people shifting to fibre-to-the premises (FTTP) via a substantially increased monthly subscription fee. It’s a bit like paying $70 a month over two years for a smartphone instead of $1800 up front.

A white flag moment was inevitable of course. No government could risk going into another election with the NBN in the mess that has resulted from Tony Abbott’s politically-inspired demand that his communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, “demolish” Labor’s state-of-the-art fibre model.

To be fair to Turnbull, he took advice from a bunch of IT industry mates who should have known better. He also relied on the communications department and its then head Drew Clarke — who now sits on the NBN Co board having retired from the public service.

Clarke and his engineers should have warned Turnbull that Telstra’s copper network had been neglected for years because even Telstra accepted that we would need fibre sooner or later.

Industry groups, including TelSoc, called on the government to include extra funding for our problematic NBN in its COVID-19 recovery plan. This would have created much needed jobs and fast tracked the inevitable repair work badly needed to help Australia deal with an emerging digitally enabled future.

People being forced to work from home during the pandemic has highlighted the need for #BetterBroadband (a campaign initiated five years ago when I was CEO of Internet Australia). Likewise, we’re seeing an upsurge in interest from people in capital cities looking to relocate to more affordable regional centres. For this to be viable we’ll need to improve telecommunications services — especially internet access.

Peter Fray

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