Stephen Rue, chief executive officer at NBN Co, the company rolling out the Australian national broadband network took some time out during Informa Tech’s Broadband World Forum in Amsterdam to review some recent developments of the rollout as it gathers pace in the final stages.
Having just used his #bbwf keynote to unveil a new international broadband speed report commissioned by NBN Co, Rue was eager to emphasize the importance of maintaining an ongoing company focus on customer service – particularly as the project’s benefits to retail service providers become more apparent as the project nears completion.
TELECOM TIMES: Thank you for your time. To what extent do you feel the wholesale remit of the NBN project was always going to present some issues and invite closer scrutiny? Looking back, can you nominate some key decisions, approaches or moments when strategic focal points were selected, which ideally could have been managed differently?
STEPHEN RUE: I have to be honest with you. I look forward, I don’t look back. I think the important thing for me is that NBN is here. We will have completed the large-scale rollout by June next year and for me, what’s important now – having built a network across the whole nation – is we do a few things.
We look at customer experience, at how we and the retailers together, and also how we and the retailers working with regulators, can ensure we get a great experience for people.
Increasingly, we will see people use services like teleHealth to educate their children and to connect more with people. It means being able to live and work in regional and rural Australia and set up a business and stay in Australia [while] being able to sell products across the whole nation. So customer experience is important.
Then it’s also about helping uplift the digital capability of the nation through ensuring we help people utilise that asset. For example, we have a team called NBN Local. Its remit is to go and meet with stakeholders like the National Farmers Federation, and small businesses like aged care facilities, and assist them in helping the community through the broadband services they use.
Thirdly, it’s about getting to a cash flow positive position. That’s important so that we can continue to invest back into NBN, meaning that as technology moves and as consumer needs move, we can move with them.
TELECOM TIMES: Actually, I have a keen interest in the new area of digital Health, teleHealth or whatever it may end up being called, i.e. the interplay between tech/telco and health/well-being – a promising niche increasingly coming to the fore.
More specifically, I feel we could use more awareness around how tech and connectivity can have a far reaching, beneficial impact on the lives of those facing severe health issues. Is this an area NBN Co and its enterprise partners and endusers may want to focus on more as the rollout gathers pace in the completion phase?Is this an area NBN Co and its enterprise partners and endusers might want to focus on more, perhaps as a strategic focal lever to tweak as the rollout picks up pace in the haseIs this an area the NBN may be focusing on more as a strategic focal point that may be tweaked as the rollout gathers pace in the end phase??
STEPHEN RUE: As an organisation, we are very focused on what we call digital literacy and ensuring that we assist, as best as we can, organisations’ understanding of what their digital needs are and seeing how we can offer solutions to them.
And when I think about teleHealth, I also think about people I visited recently at the Royal Flying Doctors, and their ability to be able to access health services, whether they be psychological health services, or medical doctors from a distance as they meet their patients further out in rural and remote Australia.
TELECOM TIMES: In terms of the NBN as part of the nation’s move into the digital era, what is your expectation of the value of this opportunity to the Australian economy when we look at the next decade?
STEPHEN RUE: We did research a couple of years ago that indicated that the benefits of NBN on its rollout to the economy would be around about 10 billion dollars a year.
The investment in business is clearly important to enable entrepreneurs to be successful but also to ensure that there are jobs being created and that indeed those jobs are not just in the capital cities.
We’re very focused on the Australian economy in various ways [such as] investing in regional and rural Australia – so the economies in [those areas] remain vibrant by looking at things like agriculture and tourism.
We’re also very focused on providing services to small businesses. We introduced a series of new products last year directed toward business. We have invested in what we call a Business Operations Centre, whereby we provide additional services to some businesses in terms of assisting with connections of the system, when obviously there is a fault on the network.
TELECOM TIMES: In regard to the AlphaBeta speed check report launched here at Broadband World Forum, in your view which elements should be present within any comparison methodology that might warrant a claim of being truly even-handed, if not entirely independent?
STEPHEN RUE: I think in terms of the report today, what’s important is that when you compare speeds and capabilities between nations that you do a few things. That you use data that’s reliable and that you use large sample sizes, and you look at the percentage of the population that actually has access to that network.
And I think that when you do that, it’s important to put countries in context with each other – comparing countries of a particular size is important as well. So that we can actually see what you’ve created, and how that network stands up against international comparison.
TELECOM TIMES: Listening to KPN CTDO Babak Fouladi keynote, it occurred to me that the whole false dichotomy of there being a choice in emphasis between 5G and the business case for a vast deployment of ubiquitous fast fibre – such as the one in which we’ve been revelling in Australia – didn’t appear to feature as a hot topic of debate in the European market.
Do you think it’s too late in the game for Australia to understand that a future proof digital economy will need to ensure both elements are underpinned to an advanced level?
STEPHEN RUE: I think they serve different needs, and I think people in their homes will continue to consume a large amount of data, with ongoing exponential growth of video [and] increasingly people working from home. And you will see an ongoing growth in data which will need a great fixed line network.
But equally, we will see, over time, the mobile operators upgrade to 5G and I think that will also provide different benefits for the consumer. My view is: 5G and fixed broadband networks are both important. 5G will, I’ve got no doubt, provide great benefits to the Australian economy.
I think they’re both important and they’ll live beside each other. And the reason I say that is, when you look at the growth on our network of the amount of data that’s being consumed, it continues to grow exponentially.
There’s no doubt that we’ll be getting to a point in time in the next decade when, for example, it will be more than a terabyte of data [that is] consumed on fixed-line networks. That actually means that the fixed line network is very important. But equally, 5G will be important for the benefits that they will provide to the internet-of-things and to businesses.
In terms of our own NBN business, we’ll look to deploy 5G on some of our fixed wireless networks. But obviously, the mobile players will look at how the 5G network is built out throughout Australia.
Richard van der Draay was in Amsterdam as a guest of Informa Tech