Delays in building the national broadband network can be blamed on work stoppages to clean up asbestos, Broadband Minister Anthony Albanese said.
Referring to leaked NBN Co forecasts published in Thursday's Australian Financial Review – which suggest NBN Co will connect about 250,000 fewer homes and businesses by June 2014 than it promised in its most recent corporate plan – Mr Albanese insisted the NBN was still on track to meet long-term targets.
"That report relies upon some draft information from NBN Co," Mr Albanese told ABC radio on Thursday. "What that same report says is that the targets of 2021 completion will still be met."
Telstra recently stopped work at a number of NBN sites, after workers found asbestos in some of the company's pits. This had caused a "short-term delay", Mr Albanese said.
"There'll be a very short-term delay because right now as we speak . . . in a number of places the rollout has stopped because of the asbestos issue being dealt with," he said.
"It's important when it comes to asbestos that nothing is put before the health of workers and the health of communities."
NBN Co, the company building the network, could make up ground and meet its rollout targets without adding to the cost of the $37.4 billion project, Mr Albanese said.
Opposition broadband spokesman Malcolm Turnbull told Fairfax radio that the delays were only the latest example of a troubled construction process.
Mr Turnbull pointed to recent reports that NBN contractors were holding out for higher fees on new contracts, which has led to speculation that costs, as well as timelines, could blow out.
Further exacerbating NBN Co's problems was news this week that a major contractor, Syntheo (a joint venture between Lend Lease and Service Stream), would withdraw from the project once current works were complete. It is understood the company has struggled to turn a profit on its NBN work.
"The project is way behind," Mr Turnbull said. "There are a lot of problems with this project."
An NBN Co spokesman said of the leaked rollout figure: "It's not a number we recognise".
He declined to say whether the report was an accurate reflection of NBN Co's projections.