As was inevitable, the handover from Melbourne train operator Connex to new operator Metro Trains was not without its difficulties: over a dozen cancelled trains, a major power line disruption, and air conditioners that continued to work sporadically if at all, reminded everybody that beneath the new coat of paint was the same old network with the same old problems.
Telstra's copper loop, which is currently languishing under a similar go-slow policy when it comes to upgrades and repairs, isn't doing much better. I know this all too well as I barrel through the 12th day in which my "ADSL2+" service — which has already spent two years struggling to pass 3Mbps thanks to the vagaries of geography and network layout — has been unusable. Kaput. Dead. It is ex-broadband.
Even the basic phone service is filled with enough crackles that it's like talking with your head in a foil bag of potato chips while someone crunches said bag constantly. Literally hours spent with my ISP's customer service and two visits from Telstra technicians later — one of whom helpfully told me that he "didn't know much about data" — left things in such a bad way that I rejoiced when the service managed to connect at 38Kbps and stay that way.
Hell on Earth (Credit: David Braue)
It didn't stay that way for long, however: as I write, the service has dropped out yet again. The ISP blames Telstra, and Telstra blames ... something else. Possums, I believe. Or the Linear Hadron Collider. Whatever the reason, the "major cable upgrade" that Telstra told my ISP it was arranging a week ago, clearly still has not happened.
I am a patient person — perhaps too patient in this case, due to what appears to be an increasingly optimistic belief that the line would actually be fixed before 2010. But after so long, and with no relief in sight, I have progressed from complaining, past hope, to rationalisation, to philosophical contemplation. And, ultimately, to the only conclusion I can draw from this experience:
Years of Telstra neglect — and I'm not criticising here but rather repeating Telstra's stated local-loop policy — have pushed the copper loop into a death spiral. Patchwork solutions, such as Telstra's RIMs, are designed to deliver inexpensive patches that meet not the goal of improving customer service, but rather with delivering lowest-denominator at lowest possible price to Telstra. Even in the cities, problems and delays such as the one I am suffering through confirm that Telstra is running the copper loop into the ground.
If the copper loop is sold off, as Telstra has suggested might one day happen, the new buyer will inherit a network that may carry voice calls fine but is fundamentally unsuited to the pressures put on it by current patterns of data consumption. ADSL2+ isn't a roadmap; it's a Band-Aid. And the network on which it runs — access to which has remained a thorny issue — is just not up to scratch: my problems, for example, began after Melbourne experienced two days of drenching rain, although it might just be coincidence.
The situation is not that dissimilar to Melbourne's trains, where the first day of service under Metro Trains was marked with both expected teething problems and unexpected disasters. The overall impression was that outgoing operator Connex had been holding the whole network together with chewing gum and rubber bands until handover, when the age and disrepair of the network quickly caught up with it.
With summer's heat and congestion looming, one only hopes Metro can stave off total meltdown — literally and figuratively. That the copper loop isn't in a much better state is a worry. Is this the sum total of telecoms policy in Australia? If so, we should be thanking the Rudd Government and its idealistic, financially irrational policies for at least bringing a sharp NBN policy into focus.
Because while its governance is murky and its financial models fanciful, the NBN will at least counter years of neglect by Telstra, into whose hands the copper loop has been entrusted and duly ignored. In its current renovator's-delight state, can the local loop possibly be worth anything like what Telstra believes it is, or even what the ACCC has argued it is worth?
Whether Metro Trains, the Telstra local loop or the Liberal Party's chances in the next election are hanging by thinner threads is still not clear. One would like to think Tony Abbott's preoccupation with the Emissions Trading Scheme and Nick Minchin's abandonment of the communications portfolio could leave the NBN largely ignored in Parliamentary discourse, but it did get a mention in Abbott's maiden speech so this may be just wishful thinking.
Whether Stephen Conroy uses this vacuum of dissent to railroad through the NBN legislation, we shall see. Whether Abbott decides to rail against the NBN and keep us locked into a stone-age copper infrastructure, we shall see. But as I plod towards day 13 with no relief in sight — and thousands of Australians continue to struggle every day with access to even passable broadband — it's hard not to hope that the Powers That Be just get on with it.
Telstra's local loop is fundamentally broken. Discuss.