Contractors urge NBN Co to 'honour promise' on rollout

‘Burned’ companies may never work on NBN again, says Civil Contractors Federation

The Civil Contractors Federation of Tasmania has sent a stern message to NBN Co urging the company to continue with the National Broadband Network rollout as originally planned.

“I would suggest to them that they honour their promise they made prior to the federal election and fully commit to the Tasmanian contractual arrangements that they had promised to meet, barring any other contractual issues that may come up that may change those issues,” said the contractor group’s CEO Tony Cook.

Cook spoke in Hobart today at a field hearing of the Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network.

Like other witnesses at the hearing, Cook highlighted uncertainty that has surrounded the NBN rollout since the federal election when the Coalition took power. In December, NBN Co outlined a Coalition-endorsed plan to overhaul the NBN using a mix of broadband technologies including fibre-to-the-node and existing HFC networks.

However, Cook said the cost of abandoning the current fibre-to-the-premises plan and start over in Tasmania is too high.

“It would cost NBN Co significant hundreds of thousands of dollars to change what’s already ... designed,” he said. “That would all have to be torn up and restarted again.”

Contractors are already frustrated by the slow rollout of the NBN, which has yielded much less work than promised, said Cook. He said contractors were told to expect four to six years of consistent work and an additional 15 years of maintenance work.

“It was really a picture that was painted to look very rosy.”

Companies spent large amounts of money on workers and equipment based on that promise, but so far work has been slow and the companies have not seen a return on investment, he said. Work came to a complete halt for nearly three months after asbestos was discovered in pits, he added.

As a result, by the end of last year, many companies working on the NBN in Tasmania were either going bankrupt or laying off workers, he said.

“I fielded thousands of phone calls from not only those in the civil industry but also from other areas of Tasmania,” including “businesses that relocated from Queensland to Tasmania as a result of certain promises being made.”

Frustration levels exploded, he said. “It took up my life.”

So “burned” do some contractors now feel, they have walked away from the NBN and won’t return, Cook said.

“There are contractors ... who will never work for the NBN rollout again,” he said. “They’ve gone out and bought machines in good faith [and] they’ve had payment issues in front of them.”

A later witness from the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union said workers have not only had difficulty making a living from NBN work, but actually have been put at a safety risk from the work they do have due to what he said was improper removal of asbestos.

“At the end of the day, site safety has to take precedence, because one asbestos fibre is enough to kill you,” said David Mier, national officer of the CEPU. “There’s no safe exposure level to asbestos.”

Adam Bender covers telco and enterprise tech issues for Computerworld and is the author of a dystopian novel about surveillance. Follow him on Twitter: @WatchAdam

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