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CONFIRMED: NBN Co has NO blackspot fix plan

Won't even work on it until the new Corporate Plan drops, subject to review

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One of Australian communications minister Malcolm Turnbull's main selling points for his faster-and-cheaper-to-build national broadband network (NBN) plan was that it would ensure the billions of dollars being spent are first directed at those parts of the nation that don't have access to broadband.

Addressing blackspots, he's said repeatedly, is a social justice issue and those without broadband must therefore be the priority for NBN Co, the government-owned entity building the network.

But as we've previously reported, that commitment seems like it has repeatedly been watered down.

In February, the Broadband Availability and Quality Report said “the objective is to prioritise the areas of greatest need where this is logistically and commercially feasible.”

That was later watered down further in the new Statement of Expectations issued in early April. That document offered the following language:

“NBN Co will prioritise areas identified as poorly served by the Broadband Availability and Quality Report published in February 2014 (including any subsequent refinements arising from additional data) to the extent commercially and operationally feasible.”

Vulture South found the term “to the extent commercially and operationally feasible” intriguing, as it is just the kind of verbiage that, in our experience, is often trotted out as justifications for delays. We therefore asked the Department of Communications to explain whether the minister had issued NBN Co with any guidance on how to assess commercial and operational feasibility. The Department replied that figuring out how and when to address blackspots is up to NBN Co.

We therefore asked NBN Co how it interprets the “to the extent commercially and operationally feasible” clause. Our first inquiry on the matter was made on April 10th but we only received a reply yesterday afternoon, after several prods.

Here's NBN Co's response:

“NBN Co’s next Corporate Plan is expected to include criteria around the appropriate technology choice for a given location. But first it needs to take into consideration a whole range of factors, including the Department of Communications’ report into broadband quality and availability, along with other analyses – including the company’s Strategic Review and the Fixed Wireless & Satellite Review – not to mention the results of any renegotiated deal with Telstra. It is also likely to take account of advice from Government arising from the Vertigan panel’s cost benefit analysis. The Corporate Plan is due later this year.”

That response will be far from satisfactory for those living in blackspots, because it again does not address the “to the extent commercially and operationally feasible” clause, leaving open the possibility that blackspots, or pockets of blackspots, will not be prioritised or could even be shelved for a time due to expense or complexity.

Then there's the inconvenient fact that there's no sign of when, or if, a deal will be done with Telstra to enable any fibre-to-the-node build, never mind in blackspots. Let's also not forget that the Statement of Expectations instructed NBN Co to go ahead with a mixed-media NBN. NBN Co's response to our questions suggests that plan could yet change, pending the delivery of the various reviews of the NBN currently under way.

Vulture South feels it is getting less and less likely that Turnbull's intention to target blackspots, never mind fix them two years before the previous government planned to do so, can be met. That NBN Co chair Ziggy Switkowski last week said the new Corporate Plan won't land until “the middle of the year” and added that “It will take us all of this calendar year to stabilise our operations” will also drain enthusiasm from those waiting for a definitive explanation of how broadband blackspots will be targeted.

With the Corporate Plan not due for at least a month and the various reviews due later in the year, it is hard to see NBN Co developing a plan for blackspot remediation, never mind an interpretation of the “to the extent commercially and operationally feasible” requirement, before the end of the year. Even if work commences in early 2015, blackspot-dwellers have many months of uncertainty and slow internet access ahead of them. ®

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