MBvR Stories

NBN Co and the War on Information - Part 1

NBN Co and the War on Information - Part 1

NBN Co and the War on Information - Part 1

Published : 15 February 2016 Author : Steven Barker Comments :

On the 23rd of September 2013, Malcolm Turnbull in a doorstop interview about the interim NBN Co statement of expectations, stated that “our commitment is, our focus is, to have a much greater level of transparency and openness” [1]. What has unfolded since he appointed the new board has been anything but a greater level of transparency and openness.
To examine what a much greater level of transparency in NBN Co would involve, we need to look back right to the start of NBN Co and compare similar situations to the current board. There were many claims the McKinsey implementation study hid some nasty smoking gun about the unworthiness of the project behind its redacted sections. We are not analysing the content of the report though, just the transparency, so for the coalition equivalent it would be the CBA and strategic review. These are all full of redactions and overall fit into the same amount of transparency.

This is where the equivalence ends. I’ve watched dozens of videos with Mike Quigley, the ex-CEO of NBN Co being hounded by Malcolm Turnbull in the Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network meetings. To these attacks Quigley in every case I have seen always calmly responded, and with the requested info.  If you have ever watched or read Hansard for the Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network meetings you would know how different the current board both under Ziggy Switkowski and Bill Morrow has been. Terms like “Commercial-in-Confidence” and “Take that on notice” are popping up all too frequently.

Implications of there not being any public interest with regard to what technology they are serviced by or the equipment they will need to buy are all too common. All of this together is moving to the exact opposite of what Malcolm promised pre-election and confirmed at the end of September 2013.
I have looked at the FOI stats from 2011-2012 where NBN Co were criticised for only approving 2 FOI requests in that year. Closer examination of the data shows that there were another 4 were approved in part, and the remaining 6 or 50% were denied. Looking at the exemptions claimed, 2 were due to documents that were obtained in confidence, 5 were commercial in confidence, 1 was through deliberation and the remaining 2 were through personal privacy and business. Under the new management in 2014-2015 NBN Co granted 3 requests, 4 were given a part approval and 8 were refused entirely. This is a rejection rate of 53%, higher than under the last government. 
Of these rejections 5 used the commercial in confidence exemption, 1 was a personal information exemption, and the last was a national security exemption. NBN Co has used the national security exemption once before in the past with regards to documents covering the Huawei ban, so I thought I would look up to find out what was being requested. In this case, NBN Co determined that knowing the IP range used for public internet access by NBN Co staff was a national security issue.

At this point Turnbull’s more transparent network has started to fall apart. His board won’t answer questions, they don’t appear to prepare for senate committee meetings, often having to take questions on notice. Once or twice could be understandable for questions that are being asked for the first time, but there are questions that get asked every time about progress on FTTN, or progress with HFC that are taken on notice. We have had a Chief Technology Officer that hasn’t been able to update the senate on his own teams’ progress, a Chief Financial Officer who can’t answer questions about NBN Co financials, or forward estimates, and a Chief Executive Officer who doesn’t seem to know what is going on in the company. I find it hard to swallow that nobody that sits on the board knows anything that’s going on.

All of this is before we tackle the elephant in the room. One of the questions that I see most frequently asked, around Whirlpool, on Twitter, and even through friends who are moving into houses that are on the 3 year plan for FTTN, is “What modem can I use?”. The answer is we don’t know. Retail Service Providers are the only people that can get a modem certified for use on the network, but a modem does not need to be certified to work. It does however need to be able to meet a certain feature set. The known part of that feature set is G.Vector and G.Inp. The problem is this doesn’t seem to be all.

I have a Cisco 867VAE, this is an integrated services router that has both WAN and DSL support. The DSL modem supports ADSL, ADSL2, VDSL, and VDSL2. It also supports G.Vector and G.Inp, but all reports so far, including by someone with access to the testing lab at NBN Co have noted that it is not compatible. Something is missing. When asked what the modems required and for a list of certified modems NBN Co responded that it was commercial-in-confidence (there it is again) and that there was no public interest in disclosing the list. To make things worse, if a non-compliant modem is plugged in, NBN Co shuts down the VDSL2 port in the node, and to get it reactivated you need to call your RSP for them to submit a port reactivation to NBN Co. No public interest, but certainly the public’s concern. It would be really interesting for some statistics on how many port shutdowns NBN Co has had in the 11 months since FTTB was made available for sale.


These are only a few examples of NBN Co being less transparent, and more closed since the election where we were promised a transparent and open NBN Co. In part 2 we will look at some more.

[1] http://www.malcolmturnbull.com.au/media/press-conference-interim-nbn-statement-of-expectation

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