The people's NBN, now with 1001 uses

Summary:Faced with a renewed threat in newly-appointed Tony Abbott and unknown-quantity communications portfolio ankle-biter Tony Smith, Stephen Conroy responded this week in the way any politician would: he gave lots, and lots, and lots of speeches.

Give a man a fish, they say, and you feed him for a day. Teach him to use the NBN, and you set him up for a lifetime of information access. Or something like that.

The beauty of these recent events, however, is not that they will change the world — but that they are giving real substance to a project that has, for most of the year, been a nebulous construct.

Faced with a renewed threat in newly-appointed Tony Abbott and unknown-quantity communications portfolio ankle-biter Tony Smith, Stephen Conroy responded this week in the way any politician would: he gave lots, and lots, and lots of speeches.

Of course, he had reason to be launching his charm offensive, and I'm not just referring to the need to finally put some runs on the board before 2009 finishes. A year and a bit on from the original deadline for the now-forgotten bids for a fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) NBN, this week saw some of the most concrete progress yet towards actually delivering the network.

There was, of course, Conroy — first in a widely-publicised (to media) photo op at the Corning Cable Systems factory in Melbourne, then standing side by side with Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett to announce the formal awarding of the first-stage Tasmanian NBN roll-out to John Holland Group.

That project will put fibre past around 200,000 homes, leaving David Bartlett hugely enthusiastic — and Conroy even happier still after previously announcing a $250m, 6000km backhaul infrastructure project that will bring the NBN within spitting distance of 395,000 homes across five states.

Yet even as the enthusiasm dies down and the cable-laying begins, Conroy has also started gaining traction in addressing one of the biggest question marks around the NBN — and the Coalition's biggest vector for attacking it.

That, of course, is the potential commercial return it will provide. And while many have argued the NBN is an essential national infrastructure component, it was nice to see a virtual explosion of interest in the NBN this week as private enterprise and government bodies alike came out to declare their undying love for Kevin Rudd's pet project through a number of public and private fora.

The most interesting thing about the announcements, however, are the partnerships being forged around the newly accelerated NBN. For example, Bartlett cited deals with the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Small Business Council, the Tourism Industry Council Tasmania, Tasmanian Tourism Industry Council, and the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association.

What cows and sheep need with 100Mbps broadband, I cannot say. But the point is there: whether because they're genuinely interested, whether because Conroy is promising lots of development funding if they can train cows to type and vote, or whether because there's not much else of interest going on in their towns at the moment, Tasmania's business operators are apparently big on the NBN.

So, too, is TiVo operator Hybrid Television Services, which has partnered with the University of Melbourne's Institute for a Broadband Enabled Society to explore how the NBN can be used to deliver new on-demand applications such as the mooted Hybrid SmartStreet Project. Equally enthused were the participants at this week's Realising Our Broadband Future forum, a government-sponsored love-in that brought together the most money-making-focused minds seen under one roof since K-Rudd's Australia 2020 summit.

With a focus on brainstorming around NBN applications, topics covered were many of the usual subjects: e-health, remote health care delivery, distance education, and even in mining, community services and what Conroy described as "leisure activities" (watch ZDNet's slideshow from the conference here).

I'm not sure speed Facebook dating or multimedia Trivial Pursuit qualify as "leisure activities" — or perhaps Conroy's referring to video games, in which case he should just say so. But the point is this: pressured with a need to justify the NBN and the hundreds of millions of dollars the government has now committed to spending on it, the ideas do seem to be flowing. Even if they're the same ideas we've been hearing about forever — although I must admit Rudd's assertion that the NBN will cut carbon emissions by 5 per cent was a bit out of left field.

Something to do with the cows, I suppose.

Unsurprisingly, Smith came out fighting, branding the effort a waste of time — although he would not be drawn on whether the expense of running an election in 2010 will similarly be a waste of time, given the Coalition's current disarray.

Jobs, investment, infrastructure, can-we-have-your-vote-thanks — such announcements are political dreams, and in the run-up to next year's election it's likely we'll see more of these staged, high-profile events. The beauty of these recent events, however, is not that they will change the world — but that they are giving real substance to a project that has, for most of the year, been a nebulous construct.

Even if the ideas eventually fall by the wayside like most of those generated during Australia 2020, the discussion about what to do with the NBN has now begun somewhat more earnestly than it could be conducted earlier this year. Real fibre is going into the real ground, and Conroy will undoubtedly continue his rock-star tour of photo ops and handshakes as momentum gathers and the election nears. Whether it's all a lot of hot air remains to be seen — but this week, the NBN was the real winner.

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Government : AU

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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