Coonan the Barbarian nurtures Lib paradox

Coonan the Barbarian nurtures Lib paradox

Summary: You may have forgotten about her long ago, but Helen Coonan made a surprise appearance to announce the end of her time in Parliament. The NBN, unsurprisingly, got a spray, and the ghosts of OPEL were dredged up yet again. But have the Liberals evolved away from Coonan's wireless obsession? Or are we doomed to repeat the past as technological ignorance continues to pollute the NBN debate?


Say what you will about Malcolm Turnbull — and I certainly have, again and again and again — he's that rare breed of politician that actually seems capable of learning and adjusting his position, accordingly. The extent to which this is an appealing trait became undeniably clear last week, as Helen Coonan, minister for communications for the former Howard Government, offered the world her take on the NBN as part of her last-ever Senate speech.

Like the TV show ER, Coonan persisted for 15 years, occupying high-profile positions in government and, later, continuing in the shadow Cabinet long after most people had forgotten about her. Her Liberal affections true to the last, her speech was unsurprisingly a spray at the Labor government and its NBN project. Throughout its course, Coonan showed that she is as resistant to change as the rest of them: five years on, she's still pining for the Liberals' failed OPEL project — and in so doing, exposes a fundamental contradiction that dogs the party's communications platform to this day.

Five years on, Senator Coonan is still pining for the WiMax that never was.
(Image by Office of Senator Helen Coonan, CC BY-SA 3.0)

"OPEL was a part of my vision in 2006 to meet the needs of rural and regional Australia, and it remains relevant today," she said during the speech, with diva-esque determination to prove that she was right all along. "Sacrificing OPEL on the altar of the costly NBN experiment has meant only a handful of people in regional Australia have taken up the service thus far."

During the course of her speech, Coonan indicated that she is now a fan of DIDO. I concur; I'm also partial to Enya, Adele, Sinéad and several of the UK's other enchanting songstresses, none of whom show the diva-esque proclivities of Barbra, Christina, Mariah and now Helen. Coonan, determined to prove that she was right all along, warned that this still largely research lab-only development shows the "enormous hazards inherent in picking one dominant technology [fibre to the home] for a new ubiquitous network, when all the risk is borne by taxpayers who will likely be left with a sub-optimal network when something more efficient comes along."

Well, you know, not really.

This statement about technological obsolescence has become as natural as breathing for the Liberals, persisting even as other parts of Turnbull's technology policy have been summarily diluted in the harsh light of reality. Yet Coonan apparently does not realise the irony of her speech: she warns about the hazards of picking one technology, then pines for a project that would have landed millions of Australians with a technologically limited, now nearly obsolete &mdash "sub-optimal" in her politician-speak — wireless technology.

Coonan ... warns about the hazards of picking one technology, then pines for a project that would have landed millions of Australians with a technologically limited, now nearly-obsolete wireless technology.

Yes, WiMax, I'm talking about you. I know there is a bit of WiMAX here and there around the world, and we all know and respect vividwireless for what it has built so far. But the technological enthusiasm of 2006, focused as it was on WiMax and its promise of 12Mbps connectivity, has moved on. Wireless enthusiasts are now quietly forgetting about WiMax, and even vividwireless is looking towards long-term evolution (LTE) and the many opportunities it provides.

Had the Coalition's OPEL plan gone ahead, we would have sunk $1 billion into what will soon be a proprietary communications system with limited capacity and no forward growth potential. Basing our broadband future on her wireless vision would have been as dangerous for Australia's telecommunications and political future as archiving ABC video footage on HD-DVD discs, encouraging the sale of music on MiniDiscs or throwing out all government laptops and standardising on HP TouchPads.

The consequences would have been significant. It wouldn't have happened immediately, but 20 years down the road, when rural Australians were still stuck with 12Mbps peak internet services, they would be bemoaning their limited bandwidth, and we would once again be having the same kind of discussion about digital divides that we are having now.

That discussion, of course, is how to build an infrastructure with the capacity and flexibility that we need to move into the future. You simply cannot do that with wireless, which is inherently a point-in-time solution that's bound to be made obsolete by future wireless developments. Coalition politicians love to talk about how basing the NBN on fibre has locked us into a single technology, because it sounds like they're taking a logical position — but Coonan's parting shot has revealed that argument for the silly rhetoric that it really is.

Even the most determined NBN sceptic — and this includes Coonan, who as a former communications minister really should know better — must concede that fibre offers far more capacity than WiMax, LTE, Ngara, DIDO or any other extant or emerging wireless standard. Fibre-optic speeds start where wireless is still only dreaming — and while Alan Jones may have been enthralled with the promise of new laser-based technology without comprehending that those laser signals travel down a fibre-optic cable, realists out there know that the only future-proof, flexible technology out there is fibre.

Fibre is a physical medium, not a communications technology; just like all wireless standards must propagate through air, all future optical communications standards will propagate through fibre. Just as there will be faster and more efficient wireless standards capable of travelling through the same air, there will be faster and more efficient optical standards capable of travelling through the same fibre; in fact, they already exist, and it is well understood that the NBN's fibre can support 1Gbps or more by changing the equipment at either end.

Indeed, wireless and fibre are both like Canberra, in this strange metaphorical construct: Parliament House will always be there as a physical place, but politicians of all stripes will come and go through its space. Some will understand the things that they're talking about; others will come to learn from their peers and their electorate; and others will blindly promote even the most vacuous party policy even in the withering light of reality.

Fibre is a medium, not a communications technology; just like all current and future wireless standards must propagate through air, all current and future optical communications standards will propagate through fibre.

Sadly, Coonan appears to fall into the last group. Although it's hardly surprising to see a politician clinging to the convictions of her party long after they have been debunked, it is disappointing to be five years down the road and see her still arguing for the merits of a half-baked plan that was contrived for political expediency and quick wins in the face of a looming election rout.

Not even Turnbull is still expounding the merits of a predominantly wireless solution like the one his party took to the 2010 election. He has, to his credit, progressively modulated his policy to the point where he has accepted that fibre will play a role in our future communications infrastructure. With the insistent but poorly informed ghosts of ministers past finally leaving Canberra behind, perhaps we can all stop saying what should have been, and focus on what will, instead, be.

Do you miss OPEL, too? Is Coonan revealing her technical expertise, or simply revealing just why the Howard Government failed to deliver equitable access to broadband over 11 years in office?

Topics: Broadband, Government, Government AU, Networking, NBN, Wi-Fi


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • The only useful form OPEL might take is continue making cars in Germany. The word is certainly not applicable to useful broadband policy.
  • Great article. I do not miss OPEL, the plan was a joke and it would have been a real waste. The problem is the coalition have never taken broadband or the internet seriously, anyone who remembers Richard Alston will know this.
    Hubert Cumberdale
    • Or Tony Smith.
  • Awesome article Dave. It is massively ironic that the very same woman that stands there and attacks the NBN for 'locking us into a single technology' is the same woman that nearly spent a billion dollars on a proprietary and many would now say, past its use by date, wireless technology that is barely sufficient for today's needs let alone those 10-20years from now. Yet instead of shutting up and pretending she never said it, she's still proclaiming it as the solution......oh dear...

    She was the epitome of the John Howard era in telecommunications though. A woman with zero IT knowledge and barely capable of turning a computer on, put in charge of the country's telecommunications. In those days all the liberals were interested in was fattening up Telstra so they could collect the bacon upon sale.

    As you so well pointed out, fibre is a MEDIUM, not a single technology. It has, and will continue to be the basis for telecommunications. Physics dictate it will continue to the the ubiquitous medium of choice for carriage of data. EVERY wireless tower connects to it, every ADSL exchange, every microwave link.....If you were going to base your long term national telecom future on a medium, surely a retarded proposal lile OPEL isn't it....
  • The most frustrating part is that Coalition supporters are blindly following these politicians down the road of opposing for the sake of it. I've noticed on this site that when you engage in a serious debate with an opponant of the NBN, it is hard to shift their mindset to a place that isn't defensive.

    It's funny that, if you were to ask someone on the street if they believed the words spoken from a politician, most people would say no. The Coalition must at least be sincere because they have a lot of followers who regurgitate their beliefs, no questions asked?
    • Omega I think you'll find most of them are part of the Liberal party online response team, they are pretty easy to spot and most of what they say can be safely disregarded, when you trim the fat there is not much there anyway usually the same worn out arguments that have been debunked numerous times already.
      Hubert Cumberdale
      • So not only are they full of contradictions, but they are also burdened by having to uphold those contradictions? Hmmm...
      • I believe it's called "Astroturfing"

        Some companies/parties are very good at it, but Aussies seem to be more resistant to it than US folks (though with the "Americanisation" of Australia these days I don't doubt more get sucked in than they used to).
  • DIDO does show some promise, but if we were going to be waiting for that there wouldn't be a finished system for another 15-20 years...heck, he still has to prove it'll work at a full commercial level and there are still bits of it that are "We'll work that out later"...

    I hope Helen enjoys her retirement from the senate, I'm sure she'll enjoy some rest before getting some phat consult job with Telstra or something similar :o)
  • tinman I seriously doubt that Helen Coonan would have the capacity or enjoy the favour of Telstra to be given a position in that company.

    I remember those members of the Howard Government who sought the destruction of Telstra, a company that employed 50,000 Australians, because Telstra demanded a fair go from Senator Coonan.

    Malcolm Turnbull is an exceptional balanced and knowlegeable person and as the NBN roll-out progresses I am sure he will moderate his opposition to it, and in fact, in Government, will complete the project enabling him to claim credit.
    • I have to agree syd, Malcolm (and even the Libs) was much more balanced and progressive when he was the leader, unlike Mr Abort who doesn't seem to stand for anything except saying "no" to progress, "no" to building, "no" to science and looking after his "big" mates (well...when they are Lib backers anyway).
  • Great article.
    The following is particularly worthwhile sceptics reading, even a few times over.

    "Fibre is a physical medium, not a communications technology; just like all wireless standards must propagate through air, all future optical communications standards will propagate through fibre."
    • Agree 100% Lasse,

      Actually I was so impressed with that line I will repeat it:

      "Fibre is a physical medium, not a communications technology; just like all wireless standards must propagate through air, all future optical communications standards will propagate through fibre."

      For all the "Coonan the Barbarian" types out there....please take note AND if at all possible...attempt to understand...surprise us!!!

      Another informative, FUD-crushing article, thanks David.

      C'mon Malcolm.....don't be a Barbarian...
  • While I am a supporter of the NBN I fail to see this argument being valid.

    Changing the device at each end of the fibre is the same as changing the device at each end of the aerial. Wireless technologies can be upgraded just as easily as fibre based technologies. Just look at the telcos transition from GSM to WCDMA to HSDPA to HSUPA(I think I got all those acronyms right :) ). I think the sole argument should have been that she advocated a technology that has died in the **** and is thus a huge hypocrite.
    Note I dont dispute that wireless has insufficient capacity to support the nations demands however I do feel that wireless is just as upgradeable as fibre in the right family of wireless products
    • Please elaborate on this point:

      "I do feel that wireless is just as upgradeable as fibre"

      I would really appreciate it! Cheers
      • Refer to my comments with regards to the current telcos GSM upgrade path, the very fact that we arent still stuck using GPRS(or worse) is testament that it is at least possible to upgrade the technology at either end of the medium(air) just like you would upgrade the technology at either end of fibre.
        What may be different is the costs and i cannot claim to know what it costs to upgrade a wireless basestation/tower compared to the cost of upgrading a fibre exchange.
        Perhaps my comments should have been that I feeel wireless based technologies can be upgraded just like you can upgrade fibre based technologies. I was not claiming that they were upgradeable to comparable perfromance.
        • Yes, vh202, of course you can upgrade wireless. DIDO is one very expensive way - massively dense clusters of access points and connecting video-crunching server farms to each other with high-speed fibre to deliver more combined bandwidth.

          But unless we want fibre-connected wireless towers on everyone's fenceline, and are prepared to burn through more electricity per megabyte delivered, we will never achieve fixed fibre speeds over wireless, and maybe not even then.

          $12 billion is the cost of trenching fibre in gel-filled protective tubes into practically every premises in Australia. Except where a fibre is broken by a backhoe, this work will never need to be touched for between 40 and 100 years, according to British Telecom. Natural replacement of ageing switch hardware will take care of the speed upgrades every few years. And Moore's Law says that the hardware will be better and cheaper, not to mention consuming less power per megabyte delivered. Do it once, do it right, do it with fibre. The fibre medium is futureproof, and if laid now it will be cheaper than laying it in future, because labour costs do rise in cost over time.

          Great article, David.
        • Just being picky here :o), but you don't actually "upgrade" wireless, you replace it (though LTE is meant to address that to an extent I believe). You'll actually need to replace all the infrastructure (including phones) for the new system for example.

          And as Umbria pointed out, with optic fibre, you just replace the "modem" bits at either end, the glass fibre it's self doesn't need replacing to "upgrade" the system.
          • Im sorry I dont see the difference between replacing a modem or a phone at the users end. i also dont see the difference between a fibre cabinet or the device connected to the antenna(unless the new technology operates at a different frequency and needs a new antenna). Also when you say that the glass fibre itself doesnt need replacing think about the medium your transmitting over, you certainly dont need to replace the air that wireless travels through.

            Ultimately my point was that conceptually the upgrading of one can be achieved as easily as the other. What might(and probably will) differ is the cost. Im actually agreeing with the author that fibre is a medium and is not in danger of being obsolete.

            As umbria stated there does appear to be significantly more physical infrastructure that is required to be replaced(upgraded) with wireless. As the number of towers required to achieve similar capacity to fibre outnumbers the number of exchanges. I suppose this is where the costs for upgrading the 2 networks might differ significantly over time.

            Regardless im arguing semantics here as I agree theat Coonan is stupid for still backing WiMAX after it has been proven to be less than adequate from a future proofing perspective.
          • You don't see the difference in replacing all equipment end-to-end (the stations, phones, etc) and just replacing two "modems"? (Note: they aren't really "modems", they're ONT's, but modem gets the point across).

            The roll-out of LTE will be pretty expensive, especially if you consider how much each of the systems it will be replacing would have cost as well, upgrading the NBN (once it's built) will actually be far cheaper.

            And the answer to Helens new job is!! She's landed a cosy position with James Packers Crown Casino :)