Alcatel-Lucent's blatant NBN pitch

There's a certain ridiculousness to Alcatel-Lucent's National Broadband Network video production that goes to the heart of an obvious worry that it will ultimately be left out when the cheques are signed. news editor
Renai LeMay

(Credit: CBS Interactive)

commentary Ah, how quickly things change over at the Australian division of French networking titan Alcatel-Lucent.

Just 10 months ago, the company publicly stated it wasn't looking for work supplying its networking hardware, software and services to other bidders for the Federal Government's initial $4.7 billion National Broadband Network tender process.

The news came despite the company's main local customer Telstra had been kicked out of the running.

"At this point in time, we're not talking with the other proponents for NBN," the group's new Australian chief Andrew Butterworth told It was a statement that your writer found amazing at the time. How could a company with financial responsibilities ignore such an obvious billion-dollar money trail?

Despite Cisco having mega-contracts with Telstra, for example, it hasn't stopped it from settling into a cosy friendship with Optus ... in fact our number two telco's new state-of-the-art campus in North Ryde was completely fitted out by John Chambers' crew.

The motivation behind the reluctance to pitch was obvious; Alcatel-Lucent presumably didn't want to jeopardise its long-running relationship with Telstra, a relationship that had an intensely personal aspect due to the presence of Telstra CEO Sol Trujillo, who preferred to maintain intimate relationships with the leaders of his suppliers during his time at the helm.

But in the past few months the situation has obviously changed quite a bit for the French company.

For starters, although calendar year 2008 was good on paper for Alcatel-Lucent, the group recently confirmed plans to cut 200 local contracting and permanent staff, citing the completion of projects and investment uncertainties as the prime motivators for the move.

Not exactly a good look, although rivals such as Ericsson were the first movers in that area some time ago.

In addition, it wasn't as if the Telstra relationship had proven an easy one over the past few years, although most assume the telco still makes up most of the French vendor's Australian revenue.

In late 2005, for example, Alcatel-Lucent had inked a $3.5 billion memorandum of understanding to be the main supplier to Telstra's then-plans to build its own fibre-to-the-node NBN. Those plans were subsequently canned, cutting down the value of the work to just $460 million.

When you consider that much of Telstra's assets will make their way into the NBN Company under Communications Minister Stephen Conroy's ideal vision for the future of the telecommunications industry, it's about time for a shift in consciousness at Alcatel-Lucent.

That, of course, is the only way we can explain the below video, which the company has distributed publicly via YouTube.

Obviously a professional production and likely to have cost a budget running into the five digits, the clip attempts to help educate Australians about what the NBN really means, according to Alcatel-Lucent spokesperson Lisa Poninghaus, speaking to iTWire.

In reality, it's a visual representation of Alcatel-Lucent Australia's growing realisation that it had better pick up some NBN work when the contracts start being handed out, or risk the ire of its Parisienne parents.

It was that realisation that resulted in internal staffer John Turner's appointment to lead its NBN efforts in May this year.

Whether the telco will be encouraged by the fact that both the CEO and CFO of the nascent NBN Company have held senior positions within Alcatel-Lucent is unclear.

Obviously, it will give it an obvious "in" to work with Australia's newest telco giant. However, the flip side is that any contract the NBN Company does sign with Alcatel-Lucent will be scrutinised closely for signs of inappropriate favouritism.

There's a certain ridiculousness to Alcatel-Lucent's video effort that goes to the heart of an obvious worry that it will ultimately be left out when the cheques are signed.

Depictions of a farmer throwing sheep into a computer screen? Grandiose educational efforts aimed at the middle class? Platitudes about how the NBN is the foundation on which Australia will build "an entirely new way of life"? How about the phrase "The National Broadband Network: every Australian's right?" It's all somewhat laughable.

It's a problem that multinational corporations sometimes suffer when attempting to enter the public debate in Australia in a meaningful way. Our culture is a subtle one, and the heavy-handed approach isn't always the best one.

I prefer the somewhat more humble acknowledgement by Alcatel-Lucent rival Cisco Systems that it will play by NBN Company CEO Mike Quigley's rules in seeking engagement.

At least there's no hidden messages.