The $25 million implementation study into the national broadband network set for release this afternoon has unusual origins.
In a flurry of activity in April last year, the government announced it had abandoned its previous $4.7 billion broadband plan and would instead go ahead with a shiny new $43 billion fibre-to-the-premises model.
At the same time it pledged an implementation study into the network, giving it a brief to: ‘‘determine the operating arrangements, detailed network design, ways to attract private sector investment for roll-out early 2010, and ways to provide procurement opportunities for local businesses.’’
But the urgent desire to get things moving at NBN Co, the company established to build the network, meant the implementation study ran the risk of doubling up on the work already being done on the project.
For this reason, it was the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy who took charge of the study rather than NBN Co. While NBN Co, and its newly appointed chief executive Mike Quigley, were a part of the consultation process for the implementation study, the company never really warmed to the idea of having the pointy heads at KPMG and McKinsey telling it how it ought to do its job.
Quigley appeared to be less than enthusiastic towards the implementation study when he was asked about it at a Senate committee hearing a few weeks back. He rejected the claim the implementation study would be duplicating the work of the company, instead describing it as ‘‘complementary’’.
And while he’d spent some time reading it — ‘‘I would not say it is going to be a bestseller,’’ he proffered — he gave the impression it would be just another source of information the company would use as it carried out its work.
As well as advising NBN Co, the implementation study will also have another, far more political, purpose. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has previously emphasised the document was commissioned to give advise on the basis that NBN Co is a standalone company — that is, without Telstra on board.
By showing the project is viable without the telco giant — a conclusion that all signs point to — the study will go some way towards quelling the growing number of critics who claim it will be a white elephant without Telstra’s involvement.
Negotiations to sell in some of Telstra’s fixed-line assets, and migrate its customer base across to the broadband network, have been grinding on for months but have shown little sign of progress.
In showing the project’s viability without the telco it will also strengthen the government’s hand in its negotiations, showing that the government is able to walk away from the table without it having the effect of torpedoing the project.
With more than 500 pages and 84 recommendations, the study will likely provide some comfort to the government — but also some morsels for the doubters.
Ari Sharp is Communications Correspondent for The Age.