As was inevitable, the handover from Melbourne train
operator Connex to new operator Metro Trains was not without its
difficulties: over a dozen cancelled trains, a major power line
disruption, and air conditioners that continued to work
sporadically if at all, reminded everybody that beneath the new
coat of paint was the same old network with the same old problems.
Telstra's copper loop, which is currently languishing under a
similar go-slow policy when it comes to upgrades and repairs, isn't
doing much better. I know this all too well as I barrel through the
12th day in which my "ADSL2+" service — which has already spent two
years struggling to pass 3Mbps thanks to the vagaries of geography
and network layout — has been unusable. Kaput. Dead. It is
Even the basic phone service is filled with enough crackles that
it's like talking with your head in a foil bag of potato chips
while someone crunches said bag constantly. Literally hours spent
with my ISP's customer service and two visits from Telstra
technicians later — one of whom helpfully told me that he "didn't
know much about data" — left things in such a bad way that I
rejoiced when the service managed to connect at 38Kbps and stay
Hell on Earth(Credit: David Braue)
It didn't stay that way for long, however: as I write, the
service has dropped out yet again. The ISP blames Telstra, and
Telstra blames ... something else. Possums, I believe. Or the Linear
Hadron Collider. Whatever the reason, the "major cable upgrade"
that Telstra told my ISP it was arranging a week ago, clearly still
has not happened.
I am a patient person — perhaps too patient in this case, due to
what appears to be an increasingly optimistic belief that the line
would actually be fixed before 2010. But after so long, and with no
relief in sight, I have progressed from complaining, past hope, to
rationalisation, to philosophical contemplation. And, ultimately,
to the only conclusion I can draw from this experience:
Years of Telstra neglect — and I'm not criticising here but
rather repeating Telstra's stated local-loop policy — have pushed the copper loop into a death spiral. Patchwork
solutions, such as Telstra's RIMs, are designed to deliver
inexpensive patches that meet not the goal of improving customer
service, but rather with delivering lowest-denominator at lowest
possible price to Telstra. Even in the cities, problems and delays
such as the one I am suffering through confirm that Telstra is
running the copper loop into the ground.
If the copper loop is sold off, as Telstra has suggested might
one day happen, the new buyer will inherit a network that may carry
voice calls fine but is fundamentally unsuited to the pressures put
on it by current patterns of data consumption. ADSL2+ isn't a
roadmap; it's a Band-Aid. And the network on which it runs — access
to which has remained a thorny issue — is just not up to scratch:
my problems, for example, began after Melbourne experienced two
days of drenching rain, although it might just be coincidence.
The situation is not that dissimilar to Melbourne's trains,
where the first day of service under Metro Trains was marked with
both expected teething problems and unexpected disasters. The
overall impression was that outgoing operator Connex had been
holding the whole network together with chewing gum and rubber
bands until handover, when the age and disrepair of the network
quickly caught up with it.
With summer's heat and congestion
looming, one only hopes Metro can stave off total meltdown —
literally and figuratively. That the copper loop isn't in a much
better state is a worry. Is this the sum total of telecoms policy
in Australia? If so, we should be thanking the Rudd Government and
its idealistic, financially irrational policies for at least
bringing a sharp NBN policy into focus.
Because while its governance is murky and its financial models
fanciful, the NBN will at least counter years of neglect by
Telstra, into whose hands the copper loop has been entrusted and
duly ignored. In its current renovator's-delight state, can the
local loop possibly be worth anything like what Telstra believes it
is, or even what the ACCC has argued it is worth?
Whether Stephen Conroy uses this vacuum of dissent to railroad
through the NBN legislation, we shall see. Whether Abbott decides
to rail against the NBN and keep us locked into a stone-age copper
infrastructure, we shall see. But as I plod towards day 13 with no
relief in sight — and thousands of Australians continue to struggle
every day with access to even passable broadband — it's hard not to
hope that the Powers That Be just get on with it.
Telstra's local loop is fundamentally broken. Discuss.