Jun 212013

One of the baffling things in reporting the Australian tech and business scene is how the National Broadband Network project manages to get such bad press.

Part of the answer is in this story about Google Fiber sparking a startup scene in Kansas City.

Marguerite Reardon’s story for CNet is terrific – it covers the tech and looks at the human angles with some great anecdotes about some of the individuals using Google Fiber to build Kansas City’s startup community.

This is the story that should have been written in Australia about the National Broadband Network.

I’ve tried.

Failing to tell the story

Earlier this year I travelled to Tasmania to speak to the businesses using the NBN and came back empty handed.

In Melbourne, I finally made it to the Hungry Birds Cafe – vaunted by the government as the first cafe connected to the NBN – to find they do a delicious bacon roll and offer fast WiFi to customers but the owners don’t have a website and do nothing on the net that they couldn’t do with a 56k modem.

I’ve found the same thing when I’ve tried to find businesses connected to the NBN – nil, nothing, nada, nyet. The closest story you’ll find to Cnet’s article are a handful of lame-arsed stories like this Seven Sunrise segment which talks about families sending videos to each other, something which strengthens the critic’s arguments that high speed broadband is just a toy.

Businesses need not apply

This failure to articulate the real business benefits of high speed broadband after four years of rolling out the project is a symptom of a project that has gone off the rails.

It’s not surprising that businesses aren’t connecting to the new network as NBNCo and its resellers have continued the grand Australian tradition of ripping off small businesses. Fellow tech blogger Renai LeMay has quite rightly lambasted the overpriced business fibre broadband plans.

Even when small business want to connect, they find it’s difficult to do. The Public House blog describes how a country pub was told the cost of a business NBN account be so high, the sales consultant would be embarrassed to reveal the price.

“The cost for exactly the same connection (and exactly the same useage) is so much higher for a business that you wouldn’t be interested.”

The whole point of the National Broadband Network is to modernise Australia’s telecommunications infrastructure and give regional areas the same opportunities as well connected inner city suburbs.

Failing objectives

If businesses can’t connect, or find it too expensive, then the project is failing those objectives. So it’s no surprise that NBNCo’s communications team can’t tell a story like Kansas City’s because there are no stories to tell.

Apologists for the poor performance of NBNCo say it’s a huge project and we’re only in the early stages. In fact we’re now four years into a ten year project and we still aren’t hearing stories like those from Kansas City.

Telling the story should be the easy part for those charged with building the National Broadband Network, that they fail in this should mean it’s no surprise they are struggling with the really hard work of building the thing.

  12 Responses to “NBNCo’s storytelling failure”

  1. Great article, Paul. The NBN will be transformative – but that also means telling the stories of transformation and putting in place the conditions for that kind of storytelling to take place.

    Most corporations are not geared to foster that kind of storytelling. NBNCo has been made in the image of telco monoliths that have preceded it. Perhaps one of the greatest failures of NBNCo is not embracing the opportunity to create a new style of communication-driven organisation when they had the chance.

    • I agree, although the telco monoliths are capable of telling a half decent story. I think the real problem is the number of political operatives who seem to have found roles at NBNCo.

      The bigger problem though is not just in their comms department but right across the organisation.

      Some of the stories I’m hearing about the contracts and project management are horrifying – then there’s HR issues in the organisation which are an absolute scandal but I can’t write about at this stage because too many former employees are locked down under NDAs and current staff members are too scared to speak.

  2. Gavin,

    I agree with your comment. The government and NBN Co have built a traditional telco that are focused on the infrastructure, while for Google, the infrastructure is merely the vehicle for delivering content. The story telling of our government and NBN is all about the speeds that can be delivered over the network.

  3. All those businesses that will benefit also need to learn how to spin a good yarn. That’s a huge stumbling block for business. There are some great stories to be told – but sadly few will make it to a form that can be shared.

    • That’s a separate issue Lindy, we can’t expect the local cafe, plumber or architect to be artfully telling their story when they are busting a gut trying to run their businesses. My gripe in this post is that both the government and NBNCo have a small army of salaried PR people and communications staff and yet they fail dismally to tell the story while Google show how its done.

  4. Everyone keeps trying to justify the NBN by quoting individual examples. Like saying I had a mate who took aspirin and it fixed him, so everyone MUST take aspirin. Take a whole suburb, do the commercials and the engineering. Ask the customers. The, working with facts rather than political agendas see what is the most cost effective, and strategically beneficial network should be installed. Telstra did this for years, I did it for years, but the politics has hijacked the commercial, engineering and strategic development decisions.

    • All of that’s true Alan and I’ve continually argued that the Federal government made a mistake in not commissioning an open cost-benefit analysis that examined the options and the best solutions – personally I suspect the fibre to the premises option would have delivered the best result.

      On the basis of individual stories, no-one’s saying that what works for an architect is going to work for a plumber but those individual, human stories are what helps people understand the effects of the changes we’re seeing in the economy.

      What the point of this blog post is that the government and NBNCo have failed to articulate the benefits in the way Google have with their Kansas City fiber project, which is symptomatic of a number of problems with the National Broadband rollout.

  5. If the story is that hard to sell perhaps someone needs to revisit the solution.
    Have you seen the take up rates, financial incentives, subsidies stories with spin and still very few want, or can see the benefit.
    Personally like fixed line services, NBN has missed the boat. For the data services I need, it’s all mobile. Where is the national plan for high speed mobile services for all?

    • Sorry Alan, but mobile services aren’t going to cut it in populated areas, to push around the amounts of data being used fixed line connections are essential.


      That’s not to say mobile doesn’t have a role – it does but it can only provide part of the capacity we need.

      • Unfortunately Paul the proponents of the “NBN for everyone” push it with religious zeal. The Stalinist state is here. YOU WILL HAVE IT! How is FTTP going to help my motherinlaw? And don’t start on with the nonsense of health services from the home, all of that can be done via a very modest data link, and anything more complicated needs the intervention and application of a health professional. And in that case these services are available at medical centres, just down the road along with the requisite trained staff.
        The most demanding content for Internet is, porn, pirated DVD’s, pirated music and interactive action games. And I am sorry it’s not worth the $37B claimed cost or the closer to $100B real cost.
        To have a street where half the people don’t even have a computer, rewired so little Johnny can play computer games is not good enough.
        We have people dying on our roads and on stretchers in the halls of our hospitals for lack of funding. What priorities would you set?
        My business uses video and phone hook ups, uploading and downloading of images and other files, presentations, telephony, and all the other Comms requirements of a small business. But I don’t have a land line, and don’t need one. The new age is about mobile, just as we have seen the mobile phone take over from the land line, mobile computing will/has take over from fixed line data services.
        I don’t even print emails or documents any more. The cloud and my iPad do it all. Instant, sortable, transferable, editable, shareable. And fully available wether I am down the road at my favourite cafe, in my office, at the airport or interstate, fully operationable 24/7.
        Embrace the technology, the flexible work opportunities and get on board with the new mobile, flexible work environment. But don’t demand everyone must do it. Remember Stalin is dead even though some want to continue on with his ideologies.
        The other advantage of mobile is that it is a network that can grow and evolve with demand, unlike the NBN which has a huge initial cost and is not linked to demand.
        I can see Stalin now, sitting at his window saying “I just don’t get it, why can’t the people see that the NBN is good for them?” I must get the Bureau of Information to write a better story.

      • Interesting points Alan, as far as the need for faster broadband goes, I think I’ve answered that on this blog a number of times.

        Here’s one post from 2007 – The Broadband Explosion.

        And, answering your question about what’s in it for your mother-in-law, Freeways of the Future.

        Your view that your needs are already being catered for is fine, but we’re talking about future needs and building the infrastructure for the future. You will need more and better data in the near future. This is beyond doubt and again I’ve covered that in Towards the Zettabyte Enterprise.

        If you were having this same debate about roads a hundred years ago you’d have been equally correct in arguing you and your mother-in-law were quite happy with a horse and cart so there was no need to bother building roads for these new fangled horseless carriages. In fact, these automobiles were going to be rendered useless by flying machines anyway in the near future.

        Like the flying machine, mobile internet is an important part of the mix but it won’t come close to meeting all our needs. You might want to ask The New Australian what happens when it doesn’t.

        While mobile currently works for you, it’s not working for millions of Australians and the NBN is a response to three decades of incoherent, opportunistic and ideologically driven policy mistakes made by both major parties. If anything, the National Broadband Network project is a return to the PMG days of the government building infrastructure.

        Governments investing in national infrastructure wasn’t unusual until the late 1980s and interestingly we’re still quite comfortable with over fifteen billion dollars of taxpayers’ money being spent each year on roads.

        This is a matter of priorities and governments have to juggle these priorities all the time – claiming we shouldn’t invest in a national broadband network because there’s a shortage of beds in the local hospital is as silly as saying we shouldn’t have an army while pensioners have to pay for prescription medicines.

        We should also keep in mind that many of those roads we’ve built required compulsory acquisitions when they were built – the Sydney Harbour Bridge alone saw 500 families evicted. We could just as easily accuse governments of ‘Stalinism’ whenever a property is acquired for a new bypass or freeway.

        Calling up the ghost of Stalin every time the government does something you don’t like is silly and it doesn’t help your argument.

        Sadly, that’s the standard of ‘debate’ we now have in Australia when we want to discuss the future direction of our economy. Let’s hope the Lucky Country’s luck holds, along with your own.

  6. Totally agree with your response to the socialist jibe Paul, typically near sighted.

    I’m ‘pro’ NBN, I agree that infrastructure of this kind is nation building. Comparing the NBN to the Kansas experience is a bit apples and oranges though. US has a burgeoning tech scene

    Note some of the comments in the article ‘it’s not the fibre its the community’. The fibre was merely a catalyst, a flag to rally around. Community provides the talent and investment pool.

    The low rates environment in the US is driving a new tech bubble in the valley (reach for yield). Local cost of living and cost of engineers are astronomical- and everyone else wants a piece of the action (other states reaching for revenue). This is fuelling satellite communities in NY, TX, LA, and many other places. But it’s investors that are driving this, entrepreneurs go where the money is, and the money is finding it lower risk (cheaper) to do it elsewhere than SV. I was there a few weeks ago, and everyone is talking about better places to put a startup. SV is great, but it’s getting too expensive unless you absolutely need to be there.

    Everyone wants the next google or apple, except it seems Australia. Singapore are working hard to attract high growth tech companies, UK (2.5x rebate on R&D, 10% company tax on revenue from patents!) and Ireland have government employees.. talent scouts… in AU convincing Aussie companies to relocate.

    NBN won’t have a ‘Kansas’ effect. We don’t have an excess of entrepreneurs looking for a home, and we’re not bandwidth constrained. We lack the capability and the will to utilise the technology. My great concern for the NBN is that in it’s current form, it’s merely a taxpayer funded import subsidy for the US tech giants. The majority of wealth that will be unlocked over the coming decades will go offshore. If Australian companies don’t exploit this infrastructure, international companies will, and that picture is pretty bleak atm.

    Tyler Crowley was in town earlier this year advising BNE and Sydney how to build this ‘community’. We really have no idea, and are uncoordinated. That is changing thanks to a handful of people doing thankless heavy lifting, but the process will be slower than the NBN.

    Final thought (rough numbers)- why invest $200 per head p/a in a commodity (the pipe) and $1.70 per head p/a in the content? Google is doing the pipe for nothing in Kansas, meanwhile we’re funding a new sesame street generation.


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