Like the one ring of Sauron, the power of Telstra's copper loop twists the minds of its ever-scheming board, which hid in its Collins Street boardroom until it was wrenched from its grasp by the forces of deregulation and the undead armies of ACCC head Graeme Samuel.
As a dyed-in-the-wool movie buff, it is with some
embarrassment that I admit: I have never seen the third The Lord of the
Rings movie. Or, more accurately, I had never seen it, until I
pulled all three DVDs out of my closet and had a LOTR marathon last
week that became possibly the first New Year's resolution I have
ever actually kept.
I am not here to wax lyrical about the majesty of Peter
Jackson's creation; that was done innumerable times nearly four
years ago by far more timely critics than I.
Yet as I watched the
final chapter unfold, I could not help but consider that Frodo's
perilous quest seemed vaguely familiar — especially as the country
wakes up from the New Year's season and we barrel towards the
looming announcement of the NBN tender recipient and the heated
battles that are likely to ensue.
In LOTR we have an item of great power, the ring of Sauron, that
has lain dormant for 3,000 years until it was hungrily snatched up
from a riverbed. Its power twists the mind of the ever-scheming
Smiegel, who had hidden in a cave basking in its glory until it was
wrenched from his grasp (in the earlier The Hobbit) by Bilbo
Baggins and, later, kept from him by another Baggins, Frodo.
The great Alfred Hitchcock used the word "macguffin" to
describe that object, the pursuit of which drives the plot of the
story forward. And just as LOTR has the ring, our still-evolving
NBN bid has its own macguffin — Australia's copper local loop,
that had lain dormant for 100 years — until it was hungrily picked
up in a massive IPO.
Its power twists the minds of the
ever-scheming board, which hid in its Collins Street boardroom
until the copper loop was wrenched from its grasp by the forces of
deregulation and the armies of ACCC head Graeme Samuel.
No, I have not been hitting the leftover New Year's champers;
just stay with me here.
The three movies document the ruination of Middle Earth as the
forces of good muster whatever resistance they can against the
seemingly insurmountable orc armies of Saruman. Uneasy alliances
are formed to battle a common enemy, sacrifices are made, betrayal
looms ever-present for the duration of a fellowship that, it is
hoped, will facilitate the dramatic quest of the diminutive Frodo
Yet even with seeming victory against the orc army, in the end
it is the nasty Smiegel who re-emerges, once again, to stop Frodo
from wrenching the ring from his grasp forever. After an epic fight
in which Smiegel turns out to have bitten off more than he can
chew, the ring is ultimately destroyed by and falls to its
destruction with the hapless creature, a victim of his own greed
We all know LOTR was set in New Zealand, but let's cross the
Tasman for a moment. Over here, it's only been six weeks since the 26
November NBN submission deadline, and a LOTR-style drama has
been playing itself out in front of us.
First we had Terria, which was formed through uneasy alliances
between former enemies who united to fight a common enemy for the
greater good. Later, we had betrayal; that would also be Terria
(more on that next week).
And we have Aragorn, the heir apparent to Gondor's throne,
putting aside his own destiny (or, perhaps, fulfilling it,
depending on your perspective) to forge an alliance with elf and
dwarf, but ending up calling forth the armies of the undead to fight a
battle that eventually nets him the throne. That, of course, would
Then there's Frodo — that would be Senator Stephen Conroy — the
one person with the power to control the ring, but the person who
is also so close to its heady power that he finds himself unable to
bend it to his will without some very nasty side-effects.
Smiegel offered the poor Sam and Frodo as dinner for a massive spider, but I think even that fate would seem preferable to the misery Telstra's legal assault is likely to wreak.
Throughout it all we've had Telstra, who for the purposes of
this analogy can be none other than Smiegel — covetous of the local
loop and doing anything it can think of to wrench the ring out of
At some points it is helpful, as when Telstra
declared its righteousness in finally switching on its ADSL2+
equipment in hundreds of broadband-deprived exchanges. In others,
it is clandestine and devious, as when it played chicken with the
terms of the NBN contract and ultimately lost the ring forever.
Or has it?
The new year may not yet have brought us a decision from Senator
Conroy's expert panel, but it has already brought us yet another
legal challenge from Telstra, which is appealing the decision of
the very tribunal appointed to hear the appeal of the ACCC's
decision to relax Telstra's access obligations in many areas. The
ACCC, as Telstra's favourite scapegoat, has in its eyes been wrong
at nearly every turn — except, apparently, when it rules in
Whoever wins the tender, it's going to be an interesting year
in Australian telecoms: what with the NBN tender, Conroy's
ridiculous national firewall (more on that later), and the
inevitable chest-thumping by the Telcos Formerly Known As Terria,
expect lots of high-level activity with very little real-world
The NBN's version of the fellowship didn't last as long as the
one in the movies, but the stakes are the same: in the end, it's
all about control of the ring. Even as the seemingly-doomed Smiegel
pops up in the last scene of The Return of the King, Telstra is likely
to keep popping up at the worst times, repeatedly frustrating the
industry's efforts to create a new world free of its control.
And why wouldn't it? After being unceremoniously dumped from
the bid just before Christmas, Telstra now has nothing to lose by
charging its best legal minds with nothing more than making sure
that winning the bid becomes a Pyrrhic victory. Smiegel offered the
poor Sam and Frodo as dinner for a massive spider, but I think even
that fate would seem preferable to the misery Telstra's legal
assault is likely to wreak.
In the end, the members of the fellowship just want to stop the
orcs ransacking their homes, but Smiegel doesn't care what happens
as long as he gets the ring. Yet as Frodo discovers, there is no
controlling that ring; the way forward can only be found if it's
taken out of the picture, and the balance of power allowed to right
itself for the good of everybody.
What do you think? Which movie do you see best describing Australian telecoms this year? And who would you cast in the roles of the main players?