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Could you believe in Steve?

For no particular reason that I can discern, a 1979 Kenny Rogers song popped into my head as I was considering the ever more complex morass that is the national broadband network tender — which Senator Stephen Conroy defended in his CeBIT keynote speech.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

For no particular reason that I can discern, a 1979 Kenny Rogers song popped into my head as I was considering the ever more complex morass that is the national broadband network tender — which Senator Stephen Conroy defended in his CeBIT keynote speech.

Opponents of Conroy's much-discussed tender, who have among other things called for more time to prepare what will be one of the largest civil projects in Australia's history, have repeatedly slammed the tender's design, particularly in terms of its vagueness around provisions for open access.

Pipe Networks CEO Bevan Slattery summed up the opposition best in stating that "there's a longer time to respond for the supply tenders of photocopiers". Slattery, who clearly isn't one to mince words, also slammed the tender as "so much non-committal fluff", while outspoken Internode head Simon Hackett called it "a trainwreck".

Then there was the potentially embarrassing prospect of Liberal ministers forcing Conroy to raid the piggy bank after they threatened to withhold the AU$2 billion Communications Fund needed to support the government's commitment.

And legislation Conroy introduced, designed to force carriers into full-disclosure mode by revealing details of their existing networks, seemed vaguely unsatisfying after Telstra's minimalist disclosure was slammed by rivals that said it offered no helpful information.

Now, we hear that Conroy is leaving the door open to back away from stringent demands that the bidders build a national network, instead indicating that proposals covering just a few states could also be considered. Clearly, he is coming to realise that absolute decrees will only go so far in an industry accustomed to conflict and an almost steady stream of complaints, government intervention and incumbent stonewalling.

There was always going to be a steep learning curve in this job — and dissent from an industry in which some were already convinced Labor had done backroom deals with Telstra in exchange for dropping OPEL and constructing a favourable network tender.

Whether or not you subscribe to conspiracy theories, you can't deny that the road ahead for Conroy is hardly going to be easy. And while I have been among the sceptics, I must point out one very positive sign: Conroy may have released a dog's breakfast of a tender, but he has at least mobilised the telecoms industry into a period of consolidation that could provide some welcome change in the long-skewed power balance within this industry.

The past few months have seen a raft of investment and consolidation in the telecoms industry as long-term market aspirants gather their wagons and start getting serious about the AU$4.7 billion network. First there was iiNet buying rival Westnet, which strengthens the customer base and network of a company that has quickly become one of Australia's largest ISPs. Optus is investing AU$315 million in its 3G mobile network, which isn't a fibre roll-out but can't be a bad thing.

Macquarie, which has the financial smarts and resources to pull off the fibre-to-the-node network, is also rumoured to be preparing a bid. Optus and Deutsche Telekom — a German company, run by executives who are no doubt as culturally bent towards efficiency and success as Optus's Singaporean masters — may well collaborate.

The G9, oft-dismissed by Telstra, even got a proper CEO in Macquarie University chancellor and ex-NSW treasurer Michael Egan, who gives the coalition fiscal legitimacy and can coalesce the partners into a unified front.

The tender is out, the teams are coming together, and the network planners are furiously rushing to finalise their plans — although I suspect nearly every decent-sized telco already has plans drawn up and locked in the safe. After all, as the Minister rightly pointed out, the tender is "not something that's come completely out of the blue".

I would suggest that, despite whatever flaws the tender may have, carriers just focus on building the best fibre network possible and stop trying to get Senator Conroy to change the tender in midstream; that sort of thing is exactly what caused the furore over the OPEL proposal and gave Telstra the grounds to tie up the government in pointless yet ultimately fruitful litigation.

The pressure on Conroy to deliver Labor's promise of change is now intense enough that holding the winner to anything less than an open access regime, is simply unacceptable. He simply cannot back away from his support for an open access regime, and will have to complement the tender with legislation that will right the oversights of the Howard government and pave the way towards real change.

Conroy is on the record saying he would consider tough operational separation measures for Telstra, and the proof will of course be in the pudding.

Change will only come with real alternatives — and I for one hope the masters of telecoms invention can think of something truly excellent to propose, without wasting time crying out about an incomplete tender or seeming bias towards Telstra. Just put in your best shot and worry about suing the government later on procedural issues, if you must. The key thing is clear: those who don't weigh in on the national broadband network now, will simply be irrelevant to the path of Australian telecoms in the future.

Oh — and the Kenny Rogers song I mentioned? Well, if the Minister were to sing it, it might go like this:

Well they believe in me, voters want broadband and the job's on me
I promised if I had the ministry, I'd change the industry
With my song and dance, give me a chance
But Kev has faith in me, so I'll compromise quite reluctantly
And who knows, maybe when the tender's right, and there's no more fight
We'll have fibre free, to download Chinese Democracy.

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