Just a few days after the Australia Connected program was launched Communications Minister Helen Coonan was selling the initiative to the TV talk shows.
Senator Coonan made a good defence of WiMax technology -- which, I should say right now, is great stuff and really shouldn't be lumped in with flaky and low-powered Wi-Fi.
The turning point came when Senator Coonan was asked whether and why rural Australians shouldn't expect access to city-grade fibre-optic infrastructure. She launched into some pre-prepared defence of the wireless technology and then just finished with something like "you wouldn't build a six-lane freeway to the farmhouse".
Rural Australians have lived with third-world telecommunications for decades, and WiMax will fix that by freeing them from Telstra's whimsy. They can get decent Internet speeds, run high-bandwidth voice over IP that will do away with their tinny fixed line services, and get their pay TV and video on demand down the same pipe.
What I was really disappointed about, however, was that Senator Coonan refused to say the naked truth -- so I will do it for her.
Truly rural Australians -- those living outside of rural centres -- should not expect fibre Internet. Ever. This hot, dusty, mainly empty continent is just too large to even contemplate it.
This is not the fault of the government, and it's not the fault of Telstra. It is just the way things are, and the only effective solution for a quality bush broadband network will be the one that accepts this fact and works with it. Fibre trunks may reach major areas across the country, but WiMax will handle the branches and twigs.
Labor isn't bagging wireless because it's bad, but because they want people to confuse it with Wi-Fi (or perhaps they are confused themselves) and therefore assume that it's sub-standard. It is not. What Labor will never say is another truth: the business case for fibre to the farmhouse is about as solid as the business case for installing a 50-inch plasma TV and Media Centre PC in my bathroom.
This is not about social equity, as Labor wants to pretend. It is about comparing Australia with other countries, which have smaller geographies and more heavily populated areas where fibre rollouts do make sense.
It is not about foreign ownership, as Telstra wants to pretend: Telstra is a terrible corporate citizen and, as Coonan rightly pointed out, has many foreign owners itself. It is not even about disadvantaging Telstra, which understandably wants to replicate 100 years of copper-line monopoly into the world of Australian broadband.
The real issue here is one of expectations: Poorly contrived, artificially inflated and unrealistically maintained throughout 10 years of poorly executed telecommunications market deregulation.
Deregulation may have increased competition and helped spur some new services, but those changes came despite deregulation -- which has always assumed that Telstra was as Telstra should be -- and not entirely because of it.
The government assumed rural Australia would be well-serviced by entrepreneurs keen to exploit deregulation's opportunities. Those opportunities, however, never eventuated because the entire industry remained beholden to Telstra.
Now, we find even successful carriers won't touch the bush with a 10-foot pole. Consider Clever Communications, a profitable five-year-old carrier, is using WiMAX-class wireless technology to deliver up to 8Mbps connections to hundreds of customers across metropolitan Melbourne. Right now.
I recently spoke with CEO and chairman Keith Ondarchie, and asked him when Clever would be extending its low-cost wireless infrastructure to service rural areas.
"I would get at least one enquiry a week from partners looking to roll out into regional areas," he said. "However, until I've completed all of Brisbane and Sydney -- and then we're looking at Perth -- economics say I really shouldn't be looking at regional areas."
Wireless infrastructure is relatively inexpensive to deploy and manage -- so if a successful wireless carrier can't even contemplate moving into the bush, how can we expect Telstra or anybody else to cover the cost of fibre to the farmhouse?
It will never happen, not without government intervention that is. I can only thank Telstra's arrogant and petulant executives for making clear to Canberra just how important it was that they get involved.
It's too late to functionally separate Telstra's retail and carriage arms, so Coonan has finally done the next best thing by facilitating a wholesale wireless-and-fibre network that sidesteps Telstra altogether.
However it happens, this is the beauty of Australia Connected -- we have finally gotten past the idea that Telstra should control when and how broadband is rolled out.
Now, once we do away with the idea that fibre-to-the-farmhouse is some sort of divine right, we can finally get on with getting some decent, competitive, high-speed services to all Australians.