NBN starts search for new leader for Australia’s wholesale network

06 April 2018 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

The head of Australia’s wholesale broadband network, NBN, has said he will step down from the role by the end of 2018.

Bill Morrow, a former Vodafone executive, has led the NBN since 2014. NBN is looking for a successor.

He told the company: “I believe that as the company prepares to confront the new challenges ahead, this is the right time to hand over the reins for the next phase of this incredible project and for me to plan for the next step in my career.”

His announcement led to tributes not only from NBN chairman Dr Ziggy Switkowski, a former CEO of Telstra. Switkowski said: “The country has been fortunate to have Bill lead this extraordinary project. While we will be sorry to see him leave, Bill has built a resilient, performance-driven organisation which will build on his legacy.”

Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who heads the right-of-centre Liberal Party, said: “Bill Morrow has done an amazing job and I want to thank Bill. Bill stepped in, in fact I appointed him chief executive after we came into government in 2013. The National Broadband Network project was a complete train wreck from that we inherited from the Labor Party. It was really the biggest turnaround, I would think, in Australian corporate history.”

Turnbull added: “Bill is a great leader, he's turned the project around. It is now about two-thirds finished and it's well on track to be completed by 2020. It’s going to be finished in regional Australia first, by the way. It will be completed in regional Australia by the end of the year, or at least the fixed wireless rollout will be completed by then. I think the fixed-line deployments in regional centres will be done by then too.”

Other Australians were more critical of NBN’s record, though, pointing out that the ambitious fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) project conceived by the former Labor government was downgraded to a mixture of fibre with copper last-mile connections.

Paul Budde, a respected international telecoms consultant who operates from Australia, said that the original NBN plan was put together in 2007-09 by “400 people from the industry [who] were involved in the design of this new infrastructure. They included senior engineers of all the major telcos, as well as experts in e-health, education, smart grids and the digital economy.”

He added: “The project showed a vision of the telecoms and digital future for Australia and also took into account what our children and grandchildren would need.”

But Budde complained: “When the current government took over in 2013 and dramatically changed the NBN most of those involved in the original plan were disappointed and the new, downgraded version of the project was swiftly classified as a second-rate solution.”

He said that when Morrow took over as CEO of NBN, “he went into this situation with his eyes wide open. He then followed the political line that the government prescribed, rather than going for what would have been the best technical solution.”

He complained: “Five years later the project is riddled with technical and financial problems and is not delivering what the people expect of a modern digital infrastructure. It was disappointing to hear Bill downplaying these expectations on several occasions.”

Morrow had leading roles in Vodafone around the world for 11 years from 1995, and then later headed Vodafone Hutchison Australia for two years before moving to the NBN project.