NBN Co requests capability statements: So what does that mean?

The Minister for Broadband's press release yesterday mentioned "another significant milestone in the rollout" of the NBN. But few would grasp the amount of detail in this sentence:
NBN Co will use the Industry Capability Network to assist the participation of small and medium enterprises and intends to require tenderers to prepare Australian Industry Participation plans.
So what does that mean?

NBN Co has issued a Request for Capability Statement (RCS) for the design and construction of the NBN's fibre access network. Simply, this means that NBN Co wants to identify:
Potential construction partners [who] will need to show they have the capability and capacity to design and deliver telecommunications infrastructure projects of significant size and complexity
Under Commonwealth procurement law, tenderers for this project may also be required to outline how they will be "providing full, fair and reasonable opportunity to Australian industry" to participate in the project. But will there be a range of SMEs involved in the build at the community level?

One of the success stories from Canada's early move into broadband was the process adopted by Industry Canada's Information Highway Applications Branch (IHAB) in the mid-2000s. In implementing its programs, IHAB:
operate[d] at the local, regional and national levels to assist Canadians and communities in overcoming barriers to information and communications technologies (ICTs). This include[d] the provision of a national community-led, partnership-based electronic delivery infrastructure platform based on community Internet access sites across Canada
Australia does not have the same intensity of community involvement, but NBN Co's announcement provides  some scope for local businesses to participate.
The participation of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) is to be facilitated by the requirement for tenderers to submit an Australian Industry Participation Plan (AIPP). AIPPs are administered by the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research and look something like this. The requirement was introduced at the beginning of this year:
From 1 January 2010 tenderers for large Commonwealth procurements (generally above $20 million) will be required to prepare and implement AIP Plans (Dept of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research).
But how much of the AIPP process actually makes a difference for local SMEs? Is there scope for local businesses within the grand national plan?

It would seem so. One way that SMEs can become involved is through one of the 24 Industry Capability Network (ICN) offices. Here in the ACT, Business ACT in the Chief Minister's Department runs the local ICN which is an:
Australia & New Zealand wide network that helps businesses to maximise the opportunities that arise from purchasing requirements from both the government and private sectors.
Small to medium size businesses can subscribe to opportunities to participate in the NBN build through ICN.
While the organisational arrangements appear at face value to be unnecessarily complex, the replication of the ICN at state and territory levels is a good thing.

Yet there remains a distinct lack of broader community involvement, a factor which clearly helped Canada 's broadband take-up in the early 2000s.

But while Canada was once a global leader in broadband that status has recently been slipping. To make matters worse, many of Canada's Community Access Program (CAP) sites will no longer be funded. Marita Moll states that the worst part is that along with the end of the CAP:
15 years of good will and good work in communities will be destroyed with it
So while Canada slips behind, it will be interesting to see if Australia's attempt to catch-up via the NBN develops any good will with SMEs. It will also test whether the Australian  industry participation policy is more than just a throw-away compliance requirement in tender submissions.

Photo of Stephen Conroy by Dr Ron from wikimedia.org. CC-By-SA