There was a palpable sense of anticipation as attendees sat down to this week's CommsDay Summit in Melbourne, where Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull was scheduled to set the agenda with what one assumes would be the usual anti-NBN spray delivered with his usual smugness and bravura. He had, after all, just the day before, let loose on Stephen Conroy and the NBN as some sort of left-wing socialist commie conspiracy.
When it was announced to waiting attendees that he was a no-show — it was more important to join Tony Abbott in heckling Julia Gillard, while failing to stop the carbon tax in the process — the gathering took on a markedly different tenor. Rather than the usual political spin that has dominated NBN-related discourse in the past, the industry got a chance to simply stand up and tell how the project is affecting their businesses.
It was more of a show-and-tell session, a much different sort of affair from last year's October event, when newly appointed Turnbull was making his first appearances as shadow communications minister, screaming to everyone who would listen that the NBN was an abomination. In that speech, Turnbull called for a "rational and responsible debate" about broadband. It wasn't clear whether he was planning, at that point, on delving into the economic McCarthyism that we've seen lately, but everyone listened with interest. Since it was still early days for the NBN, most people just listened and nodded bemusedly as opposing arguments were laid out; real progress was still some time away and it was, then, still far more speculative.
This year, however, there were actually real experiences to discuss. For example, NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley and new Primus CEO Tom Mazerski were able to talk about the real experiences of the company's NBN fibre — Quigley, in providing a largely apolitical update on the network's progress (27 companies are signed up as RSPs and 12 have been successfully on-boarded) and Mazerski, in pointing out that early Primus fibre NBN trial customers liked the fibre and didn't want to give it up.
"It was an awesome experience, and proof that there is a market and a demand for fibre," Primus CEO Tom Mazerski said, before proceeding to put the boot into Telstra over its South Brisbane exchange pricing and exclusionary wholesale strategy.
"It was an awesome experience, and proof that there is a market and a demand for fibre," Mazerski said, before proceeding to put the boot into Telstra over its South Brisbane exchange pricing and exclusionary wholesale strategy.
Through the course of the two dozen presentations, it became clear that outside the rarefied and combative political sphere are a lot of network operators, ISPs and vendors working overtime to position themselves for a world where the NBN is a reality.
While individual concerns were still apparent — Simon Hackett, for one, was disappointed at missing the chance to engage Turnbull, but did not disappoint with his attack on what he sees as the NBN's shortcomings, and next week's Telstra shareholder vote — there seemed to be a general feeling of productive engagement.
Like Mazerski, many were looking towards the a rosy NBN future, while Pipe Networks general manager of fibre Reggie Naik explained how he has been helping his organisation make the shift from operating an access network to operating an optical transport network for the NBN age. They all know that fibre is the future, and for better or worse they're determined to be part of it.
Many present were less concerned with the NBN than they were with the performance of the industry itself: Communications Alliance head John Stanton slammed ACMA's planned inquiry into 1300 and 1800 mobile call costs while championing his efforts to support iiNet in its landmark defence against AFACT; ACCAN CEO Teresa Corbin was working to make sure the lower-income and disenfranchised aren't forgotten by an industry that's rushing to clarify plans and expectations around the NBN; and a contrite Dodo CEO Larry Kestelman looked back over 10 years of company history and thanked his lucky stars, out loud, that he had been able to navigate the transition from being a marketing organisation to being a proper and expanding provider of internet and other services.
Both Turnbull and his counterpart Stephen Conroy love to drop in on industry conferences to repeat their mission statements, launch verbal attacks and rebuttals to the last outrageous thing said by the other and generally bemoan the state of the NBN or of the opposition, depending on who's speaking. Well-meaning industry participants have tried to steer the course, but coverage and discussion so often descends into an NBN-or-no-NBN dichotomy that has served only to muddy the battlefield and create an unnecessary sense of dread.
The industry's philosophical balance seems to have subtly shifted. Love it or hate it, the NBN has progressed enough that its existence is no longer up in the air as it was last year.
With the NBN's 12-month plan about to be released, and Turnbull's strategy lately based on little more than spinning every global research report on broadband into a condemnation of the NBN, the industry's philosophical balance seems to have subtly shifted. Love it or hate it, the NBN has progressed enough that its existence is no longer up in the air as it was last year. Even Turnbull seems to have shifted his focus, spending more energy than ever on matters entirely unrelated to telecommunications.
Meanwhile, the industry is getting itself ready for the next phase in its growth. The battle is certainly not over — there is still next week's Telstra shareholder vote to get through, and the contentious SSU to finalise, not to mention the uncertain 2013 election — but it became clear this week that the industry, when separated from political intervention, is still capable of dreaming big and looking towards the future with a shared sense of purpose.
What do you think? Is the industry collectively moving past the recriminations and fear of the past? Or will the NBN combatants be back stronger than ever after next week's Telstra vote?