NBN: Now we are Tolkien

NBN: Now we are Tolkien

Summary: Like the one ring of Sauron, the power of Telstra's copper loop twists the minds of its ever-scheming board, which hid in its Collins Street boardroom until it was wrenched from its grasp by the forces of deregulation and the undead armies of ACCC head Graeme Samuel.


As a dyed-in-the-wool movie buff, it is with some embarrassment that I admit: I have never seen the third The Lord of the Rings movie. Or, more accurately, I had never seen it, until I pulled all three DVDs out of my closet and had a LOTR marathon last week that became possibly the first New Year's resolution I have ever actually kept.

I am not here to wax lyrical about the majesty of Peter Jackson's creation; that was done innumerable times nearly four years ago by far more timely critics than I.

Yet as I watched the final chapter unfold, I could not help but consider that Frodo's perilous quest seemed vaguely familiar — especially as the country wakes up from the New Year's season and we barrel towards the looming announcement of the NBN tender recipient and the heated battles that are likely to ensue.

Sauron's ring

(Credit: My precious by Harald Wittmaack, Royalty free)

In LOTR we have an item of great power, the ring of Sauron, that has lain dormant for 3,000 years until it was hungrily snatched up from a riverbed. Its power twists the mind of the ever-scheming Smiegel, who had hidden in a cave basking in its glory until it was wrenched from his grasp (in the earlier The Hobbit) by Bilbo Baggins and, later, kept from him by another Baggins, Frodo.

The great Alfred Hitchcock used the word "macguffin" to describe that object, the pursuit of which drives the plot of the story forward. And just as LOTR has the ring, our still-evolving NBN bid has its own macguffin — Australia's copper local loop, that had lain dormant for 100 years — until it was hungrily picked up in a massive IPO.

Its power twists the minds of the ever-scheming board, which hid in its Collins Street boardroom until the copper loop was wrenched from its grasp by the forces of deregulation and the armies of ACCC head Graeme Samuel.

No, I have not been hitting the leftover New Year's champers; just stay with me here.

The three movies document the ruination of Middle Earth as the forces of good muster whatever resistance they can against the seemingly insurmountable orc armies of Saruman. Uneasy alliances are formed to battle a common enemy, sacrifices are made, betrayal looms ever-present for the duration of a fellowship that, it is hoped, will facilitate the dramatic quest of the diminutive Frodo Baggins.

Yet even with seeming victory against the orc army, in the end it is the nasty Smiegel who re-emerges, once again, to stop Frodo from wrenching the ring from his grasp forever. After an epic fight in which Smiegel turns out to have bitten off more than he can chew, the ring is ultimately destroyed by and falls to its destruction with the hapless creature, a victim of his own greed and malice.

We all know LOTR was set in New Zealand, but let's cross the Tasman for a moment. Over here, it's only been six weeks since the 26 November NBN submission deadline, and a LOTR-style drama has been playing itself out in front of us.

First we had Terria, which was formed through uneasy alliances between former enemies who united to fight a common enemy for the greater good. Later, we had betrayal; that would also be Terria (more on that next week).

And we have Aragorn, the heir apparent to Gondor's throne, putting aside his own destiny (or, perhaps, fulfilling it, depending on your perspective) to forge an alliance with elf and dwarf, but ending up calling forth the armies of the undead to fight a battle that eventually nets him the throne. That, of course, would be Optus.

Then there's Frodo — that would be Senator Stephen Conroy — the one person with the power to control the ring, but the person who is also so close to its heady power that he finds himself unable to bend it to his will without some very nasty side-effects.

Smiegel offered the poor Sam and Frodo as dinner for a massive spider, but I think even that fate would seem preferable to the misery Telstra's legal assault is likely to wreak.

Throughout it all we've had Telstra, who for the purposes of this analogy can be none other than Smiegel — covetous of the local loop and doing anything it can think of to wrench the ring out of Frodo's grasp.

At some points it is helpful, as when Telstra declared its righteousness in finally switching on its ADSL2+ equipment in hundreds of broadband-deprived exchanges. In others, it is clandestine and devious, as when it played chicken with the terms of the NBN contract and ultimately lost the ring forever.

Or has it?

The new year may not yet have brought us a decision from Senator Conroy's expert panel, but it has already brought us yet another legal challenge from Telstra, which is appealing the decision of the very tribunal appointed to hear the appeal of the ACCC's decision to relax Telstra's access obligations in many areas. The ACCC, as Telstra's favourite scapegoat, has in its eyes been wrong at nearly every turn — except, apparently, when it rules in Telstra's favour.

Whoever wins the tender, it's going to be an interesting year in Australian telecoms: what with the NBN tender, Conroy's ridiculous national firewall (more on that later), and the inevitable chest-thumping by the Telcos Formerly Known As Terria, expect lots of high-level activity with very little real-world impact.

The NBN's version of the fellowship didn't last as long as the one in the movies, but the stakes are the same: in the end, it's all about control of the ring. Even as the seemingly-doomed Smiegel pops up in the last scene of The Return of the King, Telstra is likely to keep popping up at the worst times, repeatedly frustrating the industry's efforts to create a new world free of its control.

And why wouldn't it? After being unceremoniously dumped from the bid just before Christmas, Telstra now has nothing to lose by charging its best legal minds with nothing more than making sure that winning the bid becomes a Pyrrhic victory. Smiegel offered the poor Sam and Frodo as dinner for a massive spider, but I think even that fate would seem preferable to the misery Telstra's legal assault is likely to wreak.

In the end, the members of the fellowship just want to stop the orcs ransacking their homes, but Smiegel doesn't care what happens as long as he gets the ring. Yet as Frodo discovers, there is no controlling that ring; the way forward can only be found if it's taken out of the picture, and the balance of power allowed to right itself for the good of everybody.

What do you think? Which movie do you see best describing Australian telecoms this year? And who would you cast in the roles of the main players?

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Government AU, Telcos, Telstra


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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  • Exhibition, not Collins

    A minor point... but the board room is in Exhibition St, not Collins.
  • Get off the weed!

    "No, I have not been hitting the leftover New Year's champers..." Yeah, but what have you been smoking?!

    "Australia's copper local loop, that had lain dormant for 100 years..." What do you think has been carrying your phone calls for the past 100 years - Tim Tams?

    "...until it was hungrily picked up in a massive IPO." When the PMG was split and Telecom Australia was spun off as an entity in its own right, it bought the network from the government. As it had no money as a new business, the government loaned Telecom the money, landing it with quite a large debt. Its repayments to the government were the hundreds of millions and eventually, billion dollar annual payment to consolodated revenue that continued to the nineties. Prior to T1, Telstra had to finish paying off the debt and become the clear owner of the network.

    As for your Smiegel analogy, unlike the LOTR character, Telstra is the legal owner of the network in every sense of the word. Even the High Court confirmed this last year, saying that it was the owner but that it bought the network on the condition that it had to provide access - a curious statement since when it actually bought the network in 1975, there was no one to grant access to. I guess, like many people, they though the purchase coincided with privatisation.

    Your Frodo analogy is probably right. Frodo ended up destroying the ring. Conroy is doing a pretty good job of destroying the NBN.

    There is a parallel between LOTR and your article - both are works of pure fantasy.
  • Boring, dull, flaccid commentary

    Welcome to 2009 - another year or crap commentary from ZDnet "analysts" - their talents would be better used in cleaning the bottom of a swimming pool with a toothbrush.

    Never let it be said that the published facts would ever get in the way of an "opinion" or "observation" at ZDNet.

    What Australia lacks is a tuely insightful and factual commentary on technology issues - engaging the technologists and the public in open and informed debate - instead we get "stay with me here" stories.

    If you have to tell your readers to "stay with you" then you have already lost them.

  • thanks for a laugh. :)

    hee hee

    I thought Telstra would be the army of Sauron

    and we know who the dark lord would be...

    He sure does want to rule them all.

    <nerd alert> It's Smeagol, not Smiegel </nerd alert>
  • The State of Journalism Today

    Well, it is certainly interesting to see the state of journalism today and what constitues a good story / reporting.
    After reading this "article", one must ask...... how in the world did you arrive at such a comparison? Just what were you thinking? Report the facts on this particluar issue - it will make for a far better article and properly inform the general public. You just might be suprised with the end result.
  • Fantastic

    Loved it, written in good humour. It is only the sad sacks that can't see the funny side. Lighten up people.
    Perhaps the whole debacle could be also be compared to 'Lost' (Where it just keeps going and going with no real end in sight) or 'Sex in the City' (Where everyone just gets screwed).
  • RE: The State of Journalism Today

    Mate, it's a blog not an "article"...

    I thought it was a nice change to have an almost light hearted look at the disaster that has been spawned from Sen. Conroy, the NBN (and the Filter, but not so much about that in here).

    If we're always taking things so seriously we'll lose our mind even before Telstra end up building the NBN (it will happen) then we're all screwed.

    I'll be waiting for the "(more on that next week)".
  • LOTR

    Ah, that would be Smeagol... :-)
  • Sorry been there done that

    Your comparison of Telstra to Smeagol (yes anonymous - it urked me too) is not new. I used it at the end of a presentation for ATUG some years ago where I used the part (in the second book I think) where there is a Smeagol/Gollum self conversation, a good vs evil moment.

    It is worrying that you seem to be confessing to never having actually read the books - especially as you talk of Bilbo "wrestling" the ring from Gollum. And LOTR wasn't "set" in nZ, merely filmed there.

    Perhaps the greatest part of the analogy is really to do with the film makers art of distorting reality, making people look different sizes or the whole transformation of Anthony whats-is-name into Gollum/Smeagol through computerised graphics. That is really what the discussion about broadband has been in this country for over a decade, somewhat other wordly, mostly distorted and usually in the hands of directors and actors who are pushing the boundaries of "believeability".

    As for your ultimate question - what movie do I think it is most like? The answer is simple - Groundhog Day. Not because of any of the characters, just that we keep reliving the same thing. Is there anyone in the role of Bill Murray, incrementally learning each day how to manipulate the events to an outcome? Not yet.
  • Blah blah blah

    If you dont like the blogs, the commentaries, the "opinions" or the "observations" across the entire site...why bother reading them, let alone whinge about it?
  • What Movie??

    Given the amount of Hoo Haa and B*******T, I think Alice in Wonderland best fits the Bill.
    I leave you to cast the appropriate characters!
  • Another Movie Parallel

    What about Ocean's 11?

    You've got a gang of con men and thieves trying to swipe something from someone they see as a baddie, but all the 'bad guy' is really doing is just trying to protect his property. The con men seem appealing, but they are still nothing but con men.
  • Hands off our preciousssss copper network

    I reckon the majority of your readers enjoyed the parallels, David. I missed the last ten minutes of LOTR3 in the cinema because I had to change a baby's nappy, and only caught up with it when I got the extended DVD set a year later.

    Telstra has already failed at the High Court in its legal challenge about the copper network. The terms of the privatisation included guaranteed access to resellers, and the subsequent legislation provides for government dictating the price of such access. We can't stop old SeaSol blustering and bluffing until they give him his sacks of gold and shove him out, but the copper still effectively belongs to Australia, not a corporation.
  • Slow Time of the Year for Telco stories

    Your editor should be sacked for accepting this as an opinion piece worthy of publishing.

    If this is the best you can come up with, then you should extend your Xmax/New Year break until you can write something a bit more fresh.
  • Good journalism

    I think that some (Telstra shareholders?) people must criticise and attack anything that even remotely attacks their Elyphaunt Sol.

    a journalist is a person that write journals (D'oh) either fact or fiction, for the entertainment of its readers.

    I for one, read it for what it was, an opinion written in a light-hearted way.

    I have seen the movie, read all 4 books (including the Hobbit), and the comparisons are done in a humoring way.

    what other movie compairs to the money grabbing, profit at al cost type of attitude of Telstra.....

    Well, I can think of a few quotes:

    SHOW ME THE MONEY!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (TOM CRUISE)


    maybe others can add more!
  • misquote

    You cant handle the truth (jack nicholson)

  • Jack not Tom


  • Send this guy to the mail room

    The credibility of ZDnet as a technology reporter is at stake here. This article almost made me throw up. Clearly, journalism isnt his calling. At least give the truly talented people a shot - and there are enough of them struggling to get a break.
  • credibility of ZDnet

    You seem to be by yourself here. Maybe you should try a "sense of humour" upgrade, or simply just get a life? David Braue rocks!
  • Telstra Marketing in full swing!?

    Nobody likes a conspiracy theorist, and I have to agree with that, so it almost pains me to say this because I'm not one, but does it seem like there are a lot of unnecessary "I love Telstra" replies to this.

    I mean come on, it's a light hearted Blog entry, it's not front page news, it's not "This is fact" expose, it's a damn Blog!

    It makes no sense that there would be so many negative comments all from "Anonymous" posters.

    Do Telstra have a "Bad mouth any news article or blog entry even mildly critical of our actions if there is a comment section, even if it is in jest" department?

    If so my advice would be to focus on your billing and support departments and dissolve this one. I've been dealing with complains over a (what I thought) was a simple billing error and I've been transferred from person to person so much with no resolve that I'm going to have to go to the TIO to get what is owed.

    Stop wasting time trying to discredit Bloggers and Journalists and fix your internal problems.

    (Unhappy Shareholder and hopefully soon to be ex-customer and not still out of pocket from being over charged)