Forget prez - vote Hillary for Optus

Hillary Clinton's nine lives are not yet depleted and, despite allegations that her stubborn refusal to concede defeat earlier has fragmented her party, she fought her battle to the very end. By placing bets several ways, that battle may just turn into gold for her down the track. Has Optus taken a leaf out of Hillary's book?

Hillary Clinton is nothing if not tenacious. And even as she gets to grips with the inevitability that she will not be America's next president, her supporters are plotting several potential futures for her: a vice-presidential position, a cabinet post, a governorship, or even — in what would be a potentially devastating option — a run against Barack Obama as an independent candidate.

Clearly, Hillary's nine lives are not yet depleted and, despite allegations that her stubborn refusal to concede defeat earlier has fragmented her party, she fought her battle to the very end. By placing bets several ways, that battle may just turn into gold for her down the track.

I was reminded of Clinton's strategy after hearing that Optus, in a curious twist, has lodged its own AU$5 million bond for the right to bid on the national broadband network (NBN), that tender document has the entire telco community up in arms.

New bidders have come out of the woodwork since Senator Stephen Conroy finally gave in to reality and gave potential tenderers more time.

Optus's bond means it will be competing against the other companies to have lodged a bid — reportedly including Telstra, TransACT, Macquarie Group, Canada's Axia Group, the Tasmanian state government, and the recently-announced Acacia group of investment heavyweights. Oh, and Terria.

Yes, folks, Optus (or, rather, its parent company SingTel) will also be competing against Terria — that consortium of top-tier ISPs that have recruited Optus to their cause, presumably on the assumption that it will fight alongside them to wrestle the NBN contract from Telstra. Now, it appears Optus is determined to fight Telstra with or without them — and sending an extremely mixed message about its commitment to Terria.

Does Optus feel that the other members of Terria are not going to be able to stick it out for the long run? Does it want to improve its odds by pitching two different network designs and hoping one of them sticks? Is it trying to elbow out its allies to avoid having to share revenues? Or is this simply an attempt to cover its bases in case anything goes pear-shaped?

Whatever the reasons, this schizophrenic act by Optus muddies Terria's waters considerably. The rest of the Group Formerly Known As G9 can't help but question Optus's commitment to its group bid, wondering whether its Terria commitment isn't just a smokescreen for Optus's own top-secret tender, which will only be revealed in an eleventh-hour lodgement that will blow the collaboratively-developed Terria bid out of the water.

I am told Telstra's network planners are burning the midnight oil (but keeping their Powderfinger, presumably) trying to figure out how to cost the NBN in current dollar figures that make sense. Does Optus actually have two plans that it believes would work? Which one is it sharing with the rest of Terria? Knowing Optus has a fall-back plan, how can the other Terria carriers trust that Optus is putting its best foot forward in preparing their joint tender response?

Negotiations about Optus's role in Terria are obviously held behind tightly closed doors, and we can only speculate as to whether it is truly, madly, deeply committed to a joint NBN tender that would force it to share revenues from the network with the eight other companies in the alliance. Terria members certainly hope it is, since the continuing series of mergers in the industry — witness Soul's buyout of TPG, Nextgen Networks' purchase of Silk Telecom, and other recent deals — is raising the bar for viability in this market. Or, as Nextgen MD Phil Sykes put it, "in the current telecommunications climate, you've got to get big or get bought."

The NBN is supposed to be all about building a competitive local loop replacement that Telstra can't control, but Optus seems to be working counter to Terria's collective sense of purpose by fighting its evil twin in some sort of Superman 3-styled auto-deathmatch. The result is a potential instability, the triumph of divide-and-be-conquered rather than divide-and-conquer.

This scenario is not dissimilar from that envisioned by many in the US political arena, who worry that Clinton's heated attacks on Obama have splintered their party and given the incumbent Republicans a step-by-step character assassination guide that could lead to a November victory.

Ditto Optus, which has used its affiliation with Terria to foment an anti-Telstra movement, but is apparently just as willing to fight the fight on its own.

"If you're not with us, you're against us," goes the old saying. The fact that Optus has put a foot in both camps will keep it relevant throughout the NBN debate, but relevant in what sense? There is no value in over-saturating the tender with half-hearted proposals. If a company as large as Optus can't approach the NBN tender with a singular sense of purpose and strategy, the whole process could suffer — and compromise the larger goals of the whole exercise.


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