NBN: Now we are Tolkien

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.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

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.

Sauron's ring

(Credit: My precious by Harald Wittmaack, Royalty free)

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 Baggins.

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 and malice.

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 be Optus.

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 Frodo's grasp.

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 Telstra's favour.

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 impact.

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?

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