NBN board has temporary pilot, ISP doubts still remain

Three ISP directors speak about what they would do if they were to head the NBN board and what the project will mean for them.

We are told repeatedly that the $43 billion National Broadband Network (NBN) will be the single largest nation-building infrastructure project in Australia's history and support thousands of jobs, but its management team is yet to be determined.

A spokesperson for the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, said "it is pretty much public knowledge" former Ninemsn CEO Martin Hoffman has been appointed as an interim director of the NBN board and is waiting to be advised of the official announcement of the appointment.

In the meantime, ISPs can only wait and ponder how the story will unfold and what it will mean for their business.

iiNet Managing Director Michael Malone said that the main issue right now for the industry is to gain clarity on what is going to happen.

“The first priority [for the incoming NBN board] would be [to facilitate] some sort of highly visible, highly transparent public discussion about the nature of the NBN. We don't yet know pricing, technology details, treatment of legacy networks, access models or have a real vision of the timetable,” Malone said.

“There is a lot of discussion happening of course, but it would be excellent if the minister [Senator Conroy] or someone else with a government mandate was involved in those discussions.”

Malone does not have a strong personal choice for who he would like to see heading up the NBN board, but says it is being taken seriously.

“In the past, I guess I would have defaulted to saying it should be an 'industry person'. There will need to be people with relevant experience on the board of the NBN company, but for what my opinion is worth I think a non-Telco like [Terria chairman Michael] Egan or [ex-ICANN chief Paul] Twomey would be extremely effective.”

The details may be sketchy, but Malone is optimistic about what it will mean for business.

“From iiNet's point of view, we're very excited about the concept, what we know of it so far. The timetable of five-to-eight years should fit nicely with where customers' requirements are heading,” he said.

“To be honest, right now getting 100Mbps to every home would probably not really see a major change to the current evolution of applications and customer speed requirements. However, we are now seeing widespread uptake of VoIP, rich content is mainstream, and IPTV is nascent. Over the next five years, we will definitely see customer demand begin to hit the ceiling of ADSL2+ and probably even VDSL2 capability. The pathway to fibre needs to begin now, not once we've reached that exhaustion point.”

If Primus Telecom Australia CEO Ravi Bhatia was to head up the NBN board, the first thing he would be to consult with ISPs and determine what the wholesale services are going to be and where they should roll out first. “Everything else is based on that,” he said.

Bhatia's first choice for the NBN board director would be [former Telstra CEO] Ziggy Switkowski.

“I have dealt with him in the past and he was fair and reasonable. He also has the required intellect,” he said, adding the director should be from within the Telecoms industry.

“The NBN is ultimately to do with the telecom industry, even though it is also a construction project. If the director is from within the Telecom industry he or she can then appoint people from within the construction industry. The most important role for a director is to hire the right people, and you can only do that if you have a good understanding of the industry.”

Bhatia said until the board is appointed, the industry can do very little planning right now, but “once we get some clarity we will be able to move pretty fast”.

Communications Alliance CEO Anne Hurley says she hopes that whoever is chosen will be in step with the two industry priorities articulated at the recent NBN Forums.

“These are to meet the Government's timeframe for delivering the report on the framework for the NBN environment; and to ensure that the framework is aligned with the strategy and success factors set out in the Digital Economy Future Directions paper,” Hurley said.

Hurley doesn't believe the NBN board needs to be led by someone from inside the industry but he or she will need to be sufficiently skilled to quickly get up to speed on substantive industry issues.

“The most important attributes for potential candidates are that they are a recognised leader with vision, energy, a track record of driving results and a passion to be involved in one of the biggest life-changing infrastructure projects in Australia,” she said.

Hurley thinks the NBN will have three significant impacts on the telecommunications industry, the most significant one being regulatory reform.

“This will be essential to critically assess the regulatory requirements that have been in place since 1997 and determine their relevance in an NBN environment. We anticipate the need to reduce regulatory intervention where competition and market forces are adequate,” she said.

“The second impact is the opportunity that will come with the new services and applications which will drive industry growth and profitability. The final impact comes from the increasingly complex services and converged services that the NBN will deliver.”

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