Faced with a renewed threat in newly-appointed Tony Abbott and unknown-quantity communications portfolio ankle-biter Tony Smith, Stephen Conroy responded this week in the way any politician would: he gave lots, and lots, and lots of speeches.
Give a man a fish, they say, and you feed him for a day.
Teach him to use the NBN, and you set him up for a lifetime of
information access. Or something like that.
The beauty of these recent events, however, is
not that they will change the world — but that they are giving real substance to a project that has, for most of the year, been a nebulous construct.
Faced with a renewed threat in newly-appointed Tony Abbott and
unknown-quantity communications portfolio ankle-biter Tony Smith,
Stephen Conroy responded this week in the way any politician would:
he gave lots, and lots, and lots of speeches.
Of course, he had reason to be launching his charm offensive,
and I'm not just referring to the need to finally put some runs on
the board before 2009 finishes. A year and a bit on from the
original deadline for the now-forgotten bids for a fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) NBN, this
week saw some of the most concrete progress yet towards actually
delivering the network.
There was, of course, Conroy — first in a widely-publicised (to
media) photo op at the Corning Cable Systems factory in Melbourne,
then standing side by side with Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett to
announce the formal awarding of the first-stage Tasmanian NBN
roll-out to John Holland Group.
That project will put fibre past around 200,000 homes, leaving
David Bartlett hugely enthusiastic — and Conroy even happier still
after previously announcing a $250m, 6000km backhaul infrastructure
project that will bring the NBN within spitting distance of 395,000
homes across five states.
Yet even as the enthusiasm dies down and the cable-laying
begins, Conroy has also started gaining traction in addressing one
of the biggest question marks around the NBN — and the Coalition's
biggest vector for attacking it.
That, of course, is the potential commercial return it will
provide. And while many have argued the NBN is an essential
national infrastructure component, it was nice to see a virtual
explosion of interest in the NBN this week as private enterprise
and government bodies alike came out to declare their undying love
for Kevin Rudd's pet project through a number of public and private
The most interesting thing about the announcements, however, are
the partnerships being forged around the newly accelerated NBN. For
example, Bartlett cited deals with the Tasmanian Chamber of
Commerce and Industry, the Small Business Council, the Tourism
Industry Council Tasmania, Tasmanian Tourism Industry Council, and
the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association.
What cows and sheep need with 100Mbps broadband, I cannot say.
But the point is there: whether because they're genuinely
interested, whether because Conroy is promising lots of development
funding if they can train cows to type and vote, or whether because
there's not much else of interest going on in their towns at the
moment, Tasmania's business operators are apparently big on the
So, too, is TiVo operator Hybrid Television Services, which has
partnered with the University of Melbourne's Institute for a
Broadband Enabled Society to explore how the NBN can be used to
deliver new on-demand applications such as the mooted Hybrid
SmartStreet Project. Equally enthused were the participants at this
week's Realising Our Broadband Future forum, a government-sponsored
love-in that brought together the most money-making-focused minds
seen under one roof since K-Rudd's Australia 2020 summit.
With a focus on brainstorming around NBN applications, topics
covered were many of the usual subjects: e-health, remote health
care delivery, distance education, and even in mining, community
services and what Conroy described as "leisure activities" (watch
ZDNet's slideshow from the conference here).
I'm not sure speed Facebook dating or multimedia Trivial Pursuit
qualify as "leisure activities" — or perhaps Conroy's referring to
video games, in which case he should just say so. But the point is
this: pressured with a need to justify the NBN and the hundreds of
millions of dollars the government has now committed to spending on
it, the ideas do seem to be flowing. Even if they're the same ideas
we've been hearing about forever — although I must admit Rudd's assertion that the NBN will cut
carbon emissions by 5 per cent was a bit out of left field.
Something to do with the cows, I suppose.
Unsurprisingly, Smith came out fighting, branding the effort a
waste of time — although he would not be drawn on whether the expense of running
an election in 2010 will similarly be a waste of time, given the
Coalition's current disarray.
Jobs, investment, infrastructure, can-we-have-your-vote-thanks —
such announcements are political dreams, and in the run-up to next
year's election it's likely we'll see more of these staged,
high-profile events. The beauty of these recent events, however, is
not that they will change the world — but that they are giving real
substance to a project that has, for most of the year, been a nebulous
Even if the ideas eventually fall by the wayside like most of
those generated during Australia 2020, the discussion about what to
do with the NBN has now begun somewhat more earnestly than it could
be conducted earlier this year. Real fibre is going into the real
ground, and Conroy will undoubtedly continue his rock-star tour of
photo ops and handshakes as momentum gathers and the election
nears. Whether it's all a lot of hot air remains to be seen — but
this week, the NBN was the real winner.