Conroy and Telstra have agreed to agree

Stephen Conroy and Telstra's negotiations "update" seems to offer little more substance than the recent Copenhagen climate talks.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

Politicians may not be the only people with the ability to work tirelessly for days and come up with nothing, but they sure are good at trying to make us think they've been productive.

After two years in office ... the only tangible concession Conroy has been able to extract from Telstra is an agreement as to how they might agree in the future.

Witness the more or less superfluous negotiations that just concluded in Copenhagen with nothing more than a binding resolution that a majority of the attending heads of state do, in fact, like Danish with their coffee. The ABC, quite amusingly, referred to the conference as a "prime ministerial Disneyland".

The human ability to forgive politicians for their platitudes and ineffectiveness is always astounding. Or maybe we just don't expect much from them anyway. Sure, it's understandable that these things are complex and take time and blah blah blah, but when it's so critically important to get something – anything – happening, status updates-that-aren't-status updates sure can be a cheese grater on our sensibilities.

Witness Stephen Conroy's pronouncement that Telstra and the government "continue to work constructively" on their negotiations over Telstra's role with relationship to the new NBN.

We've been told over and over how Telstra wants to participate in the new NBN, and we've all concluded that Conroy needs Telstra's participation in no uncertain terms. We've waited, and watched, and wondered whether a deal was already more or less certain. And when Conroy finally comes out of the negotiating room, it is to inform us that he has managed to get Telstra to agree on the terms of engagement for transferring Telstra's customers onto the NBN.

This is not a binding plan of action, mind you, but "a preferred model for any agreement between the parties that would see a progressive transition from Telstra's copper access network to a fibre-to-the-premises NBN". In other words, nothing has actually been put into place, other than an agreement about how the final agreement to transfer customers will be structured. They have agreed to agree.

It may seem like a massive accomplishment to them and, given Telstra's history of foot-dragging, it even might be. But the parallels to Copenhagen are surprisingly convenient: dragged to the negotiation table, Telstra is giving nothing away and quite content to break over the holidays to resume these fruitless negotiations next year. After two years in office, and despite all his chest-thumping, the only tangible concession Conroy has been able to extract from Telstra is an agreement as to how they might agree in the future.

The whole process seems more and more like trying to negotiate with a gorilla to give up its bananas – and if those negotiations were underway, Conroy's current pronouncement is about the equivalent of saying that "after months of careful negotiation, we have determined that there is a high probability gorillas like bananas."

When are we going to see some real progress? The NBN is held to be on an eight-year time frame, and the only information we're getting about the transition of Telstra's customers is Catherine Livingstone's statistic about shifting 4000 homes to it every day for eight years. Since that process is nowhere near beginning, what Livingstone is actually doing is giving us a time frame – surely to be extended when reality sets in – over which Telstra's copper local loop will finally be decommissioned, sold off or whatever ultimately happens.

And, at the current snail's pace, I reckon we're looking at 2020 or later. Which is surprising, since at the same time we should remember another number: 10,959. That's how many new copper-line faults Telstra is managing, based on the 4 million faults per year figure provided by one helpful reader.

If the PSTN is the Titanic, the NBN is its Carpathia ... [and Telstra plans] to charge its rescuers a fee per passenger they pick up.

If these figures are even almost accurate, Telstra will be managing 2.5 times as many new faults per year as it will be shifting customers to the NBN. Think of the copper network as a sinking lifeboat with just a few small buckets to keep bailing out the incoming water, and you have a pretty good idea of Telstra's position. If the PSTN is the Titanic, the NBN is its Carpathia. And while Telstra may be defiant now, secretly it has to be counting the seconds until its rescuers arrive – even if it does plan to charge its rescuers a fee per passenger they pick up.

Conroy and Telstra both seem either pleased with their questionable progress so far, or are simply trying to look like they are pleased with it so we can all go have a Merry Christmas and forget about our woeful broadband for a moment. But the real effect of the negotiations' progress, or lack thereof, became most obvious in the shareholder response: Telstra shares dropped 12¢ on Friday after Conroy's and Telstra's statements, as well as the revelation that Telstra expects revenues to flatten out in 2010.

Natural share price fluctuations may recover some of this over time, or they may not. Either way, they certainly suggest that Friday's pronouncement – effectively, that Conroy and David Thodey have each agreed that they, like the Copenhagen junketeers, like Danish with their coffee – is not sitting well with people looking for concrete results. Here's hoping that the negotiations prove more fruitful, and do so more quickly, before the holes get bigger and the buckets can no longer keep up.

Were you disappointed with the speed of the negotiations? Should Conroy be pushing Telstra harder? Or do we just have to be patient?

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