Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the national broadband network (NBN) bid is that it's so utterly predictable.
Telstra puts in its bid, Optus (and friends) put in theirs, a few others try their hands. And the outcomes are limited:
- Telstra wins and faces an explosion of pressure for separation
- Optus (and/or friends) win and Telstra delays the whole process with an interminable series of lawsuits over niggling procedural issues
Either way, we will see industry bodies fling one narky press release after another: wash, rinse, and repeat. If there's fibre running to the node down my street by the end of 2009, I'll eat my own shoes with mustard sauce.
Nowhere, it appears, are we getting some real, fresh thinking about the NBN: which makes me think that, despite the pejorative Telstra has often used to describe foreign involvement in Australia's network, perhaps NBN contenders really should be looking overseas for inspiration.
A good first stop would be Canada, where the realisation of a years-long dream for at least one die-hard telecoms geek promises to revolutionise thinking about broadband. That dream: get customers to buy their own fibre-optic connections. The idea is the brainchild of Bill St Arnaud, a seasoned telecoms type who currently serves as chief research officer with CANARIE, Canada's equivalent to our universities-only AARNET.
Like AARNET, CANARIE basically came into being because Canadian universities realised there was no point paying third-party telcos to talk to each other. A glut of investment and collaboration followed, and the result was one of the world's fastest nationwide specific-use networks. At the core was, and is, fibre-optic cable: loads and loads of it.
St Arnaud's theory is to replicate this project across Canada's homes by redistributing the massive debt burden of building NBN-like networks, away from the telcos and towards home-owners, accelerating Fibre to the Home (FttH) roll-outs by getting them to contribute to the cost themselves.
It's not as expensive as you might think. St Arnaud has been thinking about this stuff for years, and his latest presentation, dated June 2007, projects amortised FttH costs of around CA$400 per year per customer over five years.
Because they would own the fibre, one model would have them able to sub-lease access over their trunk: becoming, effectively, mini-ISPs delivering a raw feed to other customers in their neighbourhoods. Think Fon, but for fibre-optic cable instead of Wi-Fi.
Here's the really interesting part: to cover the cost of this potentially lightning-speed connection, St Arnaud recommends utility companies get in on the game, letting customers pay off their fibre using a per-kWh or per-MJ charge on their existing utility bills. In other words, customers would get fast broadband by adding a few cents to their normal gas or electricity rates. If this encouraged them to reduce their power consumption, they'd be getting the broadband for virtually free, and reducing their carbon footprint at the same time.
(For those with some time on their hands, St Arnaud's and other related presentations can be found here.)
Bill St Arnaud
(Credit: St Arnaud's blog)
Now, St Arnaud's idea might have drifted to the bottom of that infinitely large barrel of save-the-world ideas, except that it has been picked up and is this year apparently being trialled in Ottawa, the country's capital. Comparisons with TransACT's forward-looking roll-out of fibre across the ACT notwithstanding, this seems like a Very Good Thing.
It also makes me wonder: with all the same-old, same-old regarding the NBN, why isn't anybody talking more seriously to the utility companies? After all, they and Telstra are the only ones that have real, usable right-of-way to every house in the country.
The right partnerships, fuelled by a shared-risk model and kick-started by $4.7 billion of government money, could go a long way towards producing a far-reaching FttH network that would totally sidestep concerns that the NBN will favour either Telstra or Terria. That network could be administered by a totally impartial third-party operator with no legacy investments to protect and no other lines of business to subsidise with expected NBN returns.
Of course, there is one little problem: Australia's utility companies don't have a very good track record in this area. Years ago, when fibre was new and we joined the world in something of a fibre-optic land grab, discussions about governments snaking fibre-optic cabling along train lines and gas mains were common.
Yet none has made a major difference to much of anything: the most promising technology, broadband over power lines (BPL), effectively died a quiet death this year after long-running trials by operators such as Tasmania's Aurora and NSW's Country Energy were unceremoniously abandoned.
Could a revitalised BPL strategy form part of the core of the Tasmanian Government's NBN bid? Could Canada's Axia NetMedia be transferring St Arnaud's strategy to its own bid? Could community ownership be a hidden, secret differentiator in one of the bids currently being frantically prepared? Could a secret alliance with regional electricity companies emerge as the thing to actually make the NBN viable?
Don't hold your breath, but it would do for NBN contenders to consider all options rather than taking their normal blinkered approach. In the meantime, I'll be taste-testing the mustard.