At the start of the pandemic, the new light rail to Kingsford in Sydney’s South East opened with less applause than a cancelled comedian. It has been running near empty ever since.

By contrast, video meetings were going nuts – including comedians bombing Zoom meetings – and, finally, a legitimacy was awarded to the technology underpinning this video capability. The contrast between steel tramlines and the fibre optic kind demonstrates how our economic life is being transformed.

The COVID-inspired funding boost to the NBN, along with the advent of 5G, should be seen as the beginning of a new paradigm for digital infrastructure. Yet, to fully capitalise on this opportunity, several ducks need to land in line.

(image source: Bentley Systems)

Digital can no longer be a political parlour game

Firstly, the government, the industry and the wider business community need to recognise that digital infrastructure is now a vital enabler of national competitive advantage. Digital technologies have a compounding economic effect, and so the faster all our digital capabilities mature, the more capable and competitive key sectors can become.

Two examples suggest what a new paradigm might look like. Telehealth has been talked about for decades. COVID made it mainstream. The education sector’s pivot to remote learning is here to stay too. These developments should evolve into even more international opportunities over time, as well as offering new competitive business opportunities at home.

We should also expect that laggard industries like agriculture and construction will no longer have any excuse not to digitise, and the productivity gains will be transformative. For years the construction industry has moaned about a skills shortage. Embracing digital technology will go a long way to meeting that challenge, while also allowing an even greater number of projects to get underway and ensure healthy competition continues to flourish.

It was never acceptable that a government minister could struggle with a term like metadata. Today, we should expect that not only will ministers be fluent in digital language, but they really ought to be the poets for the cause. And the cause needs even greater investment and resource development. So, this new funding cannot, must not, be a flash in the pan.

Don’t tell me, show me

Second, there needs to be a concerted effort by government and peak bodies to graphically illustrate how existing and, as yet unconceived, new businesses can leverage high-quality digital infrastructure.

For many, it is still hard to imagine how and why optic fibre can be so transformative. We have always needed models. We need to see, to picture what the future might look like. So, there is a dedicated body of work to be done that will inform, persuade and mobilise would-be entrepreneurs, from the outback to the inner-city, to play in the digital economy, a naturally global economy.

Invest in industry development

Next, and no less important, is the capability and competitiveness of the telecommunications infrastructure industry itself. It must mature, and it must become more competitive. It will be a huge waste if the roll-out model for the existing NBN is simply repeated.

The biggest change to make is to dispense with the head contractor model. Instead, the new funding and works program should be put to market as smaller projects, at a scale that makes it possible for the many small contractors that worked on the NBN to bid for and manage projects directly. By doing so they will become infinitely more capable.

Moreover, there is a good model for a better approach to project delivery in Sydney Water’s P4S – where P4S is the hip way to say Partnering for Success.

The Sydney Water approach, only in its infancy, works over three geographic regions, with each having a pool of contractor partners to bid for and deliver projects. Its contractual framework places emphasis on collaboration, transparency, and long-term value delivery to customers.

Importantly, the Sydney Water framework also aims to improve certainty and productivity in delivery, while also producing a more sustainable, innovative and highly skilled workforce.

These same values translate directly to the NBN and will prove critical over the coming decade or more. Now is the time to make sure the framework is fit for purpose.

The electric arc lamp was invented by Humphry Davy in 1808. It wasn’t until 1878 that the first streetlamps were installed in Paris. So yes, this stuff takes time, but we can accelerate the process a great deal if we apply the three big changes outlined above.


Shivendra Kumar
Principal Consultant
Shivendra & Co.

Author of The Competitive Contractor