Why Simon Hackett decided to try to make the NBN 'less worse'

Although the Internode founder hasn't abandoned his belief in the value of FTTP, he says his main concern is "that there should be a better network"

Simon Hackett addresses AusNOG 2014. Image credit: AusNOG.

Simon Hackett addresses AusNOG 2014. Image credit: AusNOG.

If Simon Hackett has a religion, it's that there should be a better network, the founder and former managing director of ISP Internode told the AusNOG 2014 conference yesterday.

When Hackett decided in 2013 to accept a position on NBN Co's board as a non-executive director, there were howls of protest from partisans of the former Labor government's approach of rolling out a fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) network.

Update: Simon Hackett has posted his presentation online.

Under the Coalition government, NBN Co is pursuing a National Broadband Network that will rely on multiple technologies for the fixed line rollout, including fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) and hybrid-coaxial fibre (HFC).

"I had turned to the dark side," Hackett said of some of the reactions that greeted the news he would join the NBN Co board.

Although he still supports a fibre network, Hackett said he "made a conscious choice to step inside the tent, to step away from the policy debate, to try to make the current situation 'less worse'".

"It's that simple," Hackett said. "That's my motivation... I believe that I and others are actually achieving that in a lot of ways that you don't see particularly from the outside. But I believe it is 'less worse'."

"I decided that there was opportunity to try and apply my skill set within the current policy and funding constraints in a better way by being on the inside of that tent rather than being on the outside of it," the Internode founder said.

Upon joining NBN Co's board, he found himself part of a "top-down reboot" of the organisation. There was a new government and new shareholder ministers, and an almost entirely new board.

In Hackett's opinion, the new board is "extremely good". "I can't really speak to the previous board because I wasn't on it, but the new board at least has a lot of industry expertise which is useful," Hackett said.

"There's lots of expertise there that actually knows how you build a network, and one of the challenges in the network to date was there was arguably less expertise than there should have been about the pragmatic aspects of making these things operate."

Hackett described NBN Co's new CEO, Bill Morrow, as a "great, great hire".

"He's got lots of experience with turning around complex, large network builds that have gone a little bit off the rail," Hackett said.

"I don't think that's a bad description of the Vodafone he found himself working for in Australia, and he had largely achieved that turnaround process at the point where he shifted over to NBN Co."

The new executive team pulled together by Morrow is also composed of "extremely good people," Hackett said, citing NBN Co COO Greg Adcock as one example.

When Hackett joined the board, NBN Co had clearly suffered from "its own inability to get results out the door in the previous electoral cycle".

"Fundamentally this exercise in building a very large organisation, very quickly had done the thing that such things often do — it had already run into enormous problems driven off very fast growth, and then off of political influence...

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"There were a lot of promises made as we ran up towards the last election. You might recall there were these escalating commitments about the number of homes that would be passed by the network. What was said less clearly was that there was this thing called Service Class 0 used as marvellous gap filler."

"Service Class 0 means 'you know we said we went passed your house, but actually you can't have it anyway'," Hackett said.

"So picture a world where the NBN administration, under the previous government, were being driven as they kept failing to meet build targets...

"Picture contractors incented to run past your house as fast as possible trailing fibre behind them with no particular concern about whether or not they could connect your particular house.

"It was all about increasing that number — premises passed. Something like a third of those premises passed are essentially unconnectable."

The relationship with NBN Co's construction partners, which suffered when the organisation was under pressure to deliver results in the lead-up to the last election, has largely been repaired, Hackett said, and NBN Co has a program to deal with the Service Class 0 issue.

Follow Rohan on Twitter: @rohan_p

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