Tasmanian NBN: Small step or a giant leap?

Like the engineers that sat down on day one with an empty blackboard and a mission to get man to the moon and back, building the NBN from the ground up is a daunting and complex opportunity that will present more than its share of challenges.

In an inspiring speech in May 1961, US president John F. Kennedy exhorted the country's scientific community to work together to put a man on the moon by the end of that decade.

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade," he said, "and to do other things [in space research] not because they are easy, but because they are hard ... because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills."

Kennedy's vision breathed new life into the country's scientific and manufacturing industries, employing 400,000 people and 20,000 companies, helping the US assert global scientific and technological strength, and giving NASA long-term gravitas, to the tune of around US$25 billion 1969 dollars (US$135 billion, or approximately AU$168 billion in 2005 dollars).

Given its potential as a lightning rod for massive jobs and investment stimulus, parallels between the NBN and the Apollo project seem apt: the NBN has the potential to do much the same for Australia's telecoms industry and, dare I say, its national psyche. Stephen Conroy knows this all too well, which is why he wasted no time labelling last week's tender for the supply of fibre-optic services to Tasmania's Aurora Energy as stage one of the NBN roll-out (coincidentally, or perhaps not so much, that event came on 16 July, the same day the Apollo 11 mission launched).

Facing great pressure to produce actual results and not to let Labor's broadband vision and timeline slip any more than it already has, Conroy's enthusiasm is hardly surprising; he has to put some runs on the board to support Labor's case for re-election next year. And, to be sure, concrete steps are better than none at all, as I asserted last week after it seemed we were no closer to a Tasmanian NBN than we were back in April when the new strategy was announced.

We still aren't much closer, not in any tangible sort of way. But with the NBN board appointment of Rudd's policy coordinator and one-time ninemsn executive Martin Hoffman last week and full board appointments rumoured to be imminent, we are slowly gaining details of what the Tasmanian NBN — a microcosm of the entire NBN — will be like.

Well, sort of. Because if what Aurora is asking for represents the level of detail that will characterise the rest of the NBN, a telecoms industry stampeding into Tasmania thanks to the new Basslink fibre — and expecting it to herald bigger things for the mainland network — may well be left wondering where the meat of the NBN has gone.

At first glance, Aurora's tender seems imprecise and non-specific, offering little explicit detail about new NBN-related construction. It is, apparently, to be handled as a network upgrade rather than a totally new civil works project. And TNBN Co, the new Commonwealth-and-Tasmanian-government venture that will handle the state's corner of the NBN, will be working to ensure that those parts of the state that don't get fibre, get access to the same satellite services many people are already using to get online.

Facilitating a few fibre upgrades with a well-prepared incumbent is a start, but it's as far away from the full NBN project as NASA's Langley Research Center was from the actual surface of the moon. As an island geography with a heavily centralised population spanning a relatively small amount of space, Tasmania may be a good testing ground for the NBN's technologies — but out on the big bad mainland the real project will face all sorts of commercial, technological and policy hurdles that will make TNBN's work seem like a walk in the industrial park.

Never mind all that for now. A tender is a tender, no matter how small, and a struggling industry has responded with enthusiasm to what may be the first real sign that the NBN is more than a figment of Conroy's optimistic press releases, stultifyingly on-message speeches and over-bland policy declarations.

Peak body the Communications Alliance, for one, last week kicked off its formal NBN Works Program, under which the group is rallying members to work out a unified NBN strategy. As if those members were actually designing the NBN instead of simply being contracted by TNBN Co to build it, the NBN Works Program identifies the NBN Reference Model, wholesale services and early stage deployments as "priority areas ... work on these projects is expected to be finalised before the end of 2009," the Communications Alliance announced in a statement.

That time frame seems optimistically short. Nonetheless, business development managers from Alcatel to ZyXEL are rubbing their hands with glee as they consider the potential windfalls to come. Router maker Billion, in an astounding case of jumping-the-gun, even took $150 off the price of its "NBN-ready" BIPAC 7800N ADSL2+ router. Isn't that sort of like Toyota advertising that its latest LandCruiser is ready to be driven across Mare Tranquillitatis?

Even the divisiveness of partisan politics may be overcome by strong leadership and a shared sense of purpose. This is the challenge, and the opportunity, Labor now faces.

Like the engineers that sat down on day one with an empty blackboard and a mission to get man to the moon and back, building the NBN from the ground up is a daunting and complex opportunity that will present more than its share of challenges.

Many parts of Australia have communications capabilities not much better than those on the barren plain onto which Neil Armstrong stepped 40 years ago. Yet as we commemorate the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11's landing, perhaps we should forget for a moment that the majority of the project still exists in a policy, funding and investment vacuum from which even logic cannot escape. That's politics for you.

Yet even the divisiveness of partisan politics may be overcome by strong leadership and a shared sense of purpose. This is the challenge, and the opportunity, Labor now faces. If Conroy thinks the NBN will happen with anything less, he should perhaps recall Kennedy's words on that day back in 1961:

The opening vistas of space promised high cost and hardships as well as high reward... If [the] history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that Man in his quest for knowledge and progress is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead whether we join in it or not. And it is one of the great adventures of all time.... This generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space; we need to be a part of it, and we need to lead it... Its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again.

As it was then for space, so it is now for cyberspace, and the NBN that will get us there. Let the race begin.

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