A while back I was bemused and intrigued when I received a flyer for www.nowwearetalking.com.au included with my cheap-ass Telstra mobile phone bill. The flyer made much of its status as a grass-roots movement, intended to beat up the Federal Government so they de-claw the ACCC somewhat. Once the ACCC is out of the picture Telstra would finally be free to gernerously wash all of Australia’s telecommunications problems away with their big AU$4 billion bucket of broadband infrastructure money.
If I may paraphrase Telstra — “Shame if anything were to happen to that money. Someone might get bored and accidentally go and invest it in some non-monopoly assets. Then where would your broadband future be?”
Quite apart from its arrival in the same package as my Telstra bill, the tenor of the message was a bit of a giveaway. But beyond a stark claim of being a grassroots movement, Telstra’s backing is not hidden at all. The About Page features a surprisingly lucid Phil Burgess — someone I’ve noted before for his inability to work on radio — talking about the genesis of the site from a new “grassroots” shareholder friend he made in a restaurant:
The conversation closed with my new shareholder friend saying, “We need more information that we can use. The stuff we get from Telstra is all about numbers and finances. The stuff in the newspapers is about politics. We need information that helps us know what is possible and what we are missing and how life could be better if we all had broadband and the new services you talk about – and if we could find a way to fix the systems we have now, because some don’t work the way they should. So keep it going.”
Well done friend of Phil! You can see how this got him thinking. This completely not paraphrased account points to a desperate need for new “stuff.” The “stuff” Phil’s friend was asking for was apparently the Astroturf Phil’s recounting of his grassroots encounter is printed on. Get on the phone to the office “Quick, register keepitgoing.com.au … oh, that’s taken? How about nowwearetalking.com.au? Ok? Good!” Sure, keepitgoing.com.au isn’t taken. This is my apocryphally salient story. Go knock yourselves out domain squatters!
Alan Kohler has an excellent article in today’s SMH about Telstra’s recent very expensive campaign to convince the government to let it sidestep regulations and roll out a Fiber to the Node (FTTN) broadband network before Optus and co. get the regulatory go-ahead to roll out a Fiber to the Home (FTTH) network.
Kohler laments that something that I considered an essential precondition to Telstra’s privatization — retention of public ownership of Telstra’s “natural monopoly” assets. He also explains Telstra’s preference for FTTN and not the more capable FTTH.
In the world of fibre to which we are now moving, the copper wires and the exchanges that operate them are obsolete, valuable scrap metal. FTTN preserves the need for copper over the last mile to the house for a bit longer, which is presumably one reason Telstra is sticking with nodes and heaping scorn on FTTH.
But its network of ducts is a true monopoly asset: no one can viably duplicate them and the alternatives – overhead poles or sewers – are not suitable.
Telstra ducts were “declared” long ago, which means Telstra cannot withhold access to them and the price of access is regulated.
It would have been far better if that part of Telstra had not been privatised, or at least sold separately as an infrastructure fund, but too late for that.
Kohler then makes the point that the Government is playing catch-up to Labor’s announced broadband policy/immunization against Coalition raids on the Future Fund, and is vulnerable to Telstra’s waving around of $4 billion that they could drop on an almost modern FTTN broadband roll-out if only the government would let them bypass the ACCC and sure up their monopoly infrastructure.
It’s a bold play by Telstra. I think they are counting on a naive public with weak opinions to pressure the Coalition Government into waving this deal past the ACCC. That would work both ways. The public might not feel strongly either way on regulation, but the large number of Telstra shareholders might appreciate having their company’s share price given a boost. I can only hope that Helen Coonan and John Howard have the patience to develop at a policy that won’t restore Telstra to a position of competition-stifling monopoly as an election fix.