Coonan the Barbarian nurtures Lib paradox

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?