The rollout of the hybrid-fibre coaxial (HFC) part of the troubled national broadband network is known internally as “Operation Clusterf—“, says Labor senator Stephen Conroy. “I know the internal nickname you’ve got for the HFC rollout, and it’s not fit to actually describe on the public record: Operation Cluster … something,” Mr Conroy told NBN chief executive Bill Morrow during a heated exchange at a Senate hearing on Tuesday.
The Turnbull government and the company rolling out its so-called “multi-technology mix” have been under increasing scrutiny over the viability of the HFC part of its network rollout, which uses outdated Telstra and Optus HFC cables (the kind used for receiving Foxtel).
Labor senator Stephen Conroy says the Optus hybrid-fibre coaxial network that will be used in the NBN is ‘a pile of rubbish’. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Media leaks last year showed the poor quality of Optus’ HFC network and Telstra’s copper nodes meant they would cost more than expected to fix up.
The Coalition government won a mandate in 2013 to deliver the NBN using a mix of existing technologies including legacy copper and HFC networks to lower costs in comparison with Labor’s predominantly fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) plan.
However, rollout forecasts and costs have since been revised, with NBN staffers continuing to leak internal documents which bring into question the viability of continuing with the multi-technology plan.
NBN and the Coalition government have continually rejected any reports the project rollout is not on track.
Senator Conroy referred specifically to the Optus HFC network as “a pile of rubbish”.
He questioned the NBN boss over the company’s ability to meet its overall rollout targets as a result of the problems plaguing the HFC component.
“2.3 million premises [ready for HFC service] by FY18 – they’re your numbers, you’ve published them, and all I’m saying is you haven’t found a construction partner yet [for HFC],” Senator Conroy said.
Mr Morrow defended NBN’s ability to meet the project’s overall rollout targets with a 2020 completion date, arguing that “we are killing it in terms of delivering on that”. However, he admitted the schedule of the HFC component – or other technologies individually – may change from what the company had previously forecast.
NBN Co chief executive Bill Morrow defended progress on the network. Photo: Rob Homer
“Everything we have published [in terms of rollout of individual technologies] … is subject to change,” Mr Morrow said.
In the latest in a series of damning leaks of internal NBN documents, last month Fairfax Media obtained documents that revealed the multi-technology rollout had fallen two-thirds short of its own benchmark construction timetable, with connection costs also rising.
Mr Morrow said individual rollout figures were “not internal targets; they are not government targets”.
Senator Conroy also questioned Mr Morrow extensively over whether the NBN board had rejected a recommendation from the company to pursue faster fibre-to-the-distribution-point (FTTDP) technology instead of fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) in parts of its rollout as the costs of installing fibre in the network came down.
“Millions of Australians have to get a third-rate network because the board doesn’t believe the advice that it’s been given by its own executives,” Mr Conroy said.
However, Mr Morrow defended the board’s decision not to adopt the technology yet, saying an FTTDP rollout had been little more than a “discussion” about 12 months ago.
Opposition communications spokesman Jason Clare said if Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wasn’t so “arrogant”, Australians could have faster internet speeds.
“The head of NBN Co today revealed that he has discussed with the NBN board replacing Malcolm Turnbull’s second rate copper NBN with a plan to roll out fibre all the way to people’s driveway [FTTDP] – meaning much faster internet,” Mr Clare said.
“The only reason this hasn’t happened yet is because it will prove Malcolm Turnbull was wrong and his copper NBN is a dud.”