Telstra holds back broadband speeds. Again. (Revisited)

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[This story was originally written for Crikey, where it was published on 12 January 2009. I’ve linked to it previously Here it is in full, along with a wonderful follow-up comment from a Telstra PR guy and my extremely snarky reply.]

Confused by Telstra’s rejected low-cal bid for the National Broadband Network? Let’s stir some new jargon into the stew: “DOCSIS 3” and “dark fibre”. Suddenly Telstra’s strategy makes sense — for Telstra — but it delays the rollout of high-speed broadband even further. Again.

DOCSIS 3 is a new system for cable internet which increases speeds from the current 17Mbit per second of BigPond Cable (30Mbit in Sydney and Melbourne) to 100Mbit or more. Last week Telstra CEO Sol Trujillo revealed that the technology is being deployed, but implied that it won’t be offered until they’re forced to by a competitor’s actions.

“We have [DOCSIS 3] as an option if somebody chooses to compete and to compete with us,” he told a conference in Phoenix.

“The only difference is we’ll be there a lot quicker a lot faster a lot bigger, a lot more integrated and with more capabilities than anybody else.”

How does Telstra do it quicker? By quietly stashing away its secret weapons, ready to be unleashed when a competitor tried to deploy their own big guns. Remember how Telstra didn’t sell ADSL2+ broadband, even from exchanges where equipment was already installed, until ISPs like iiNet started selling their own ADSL2+?

This time Telstra will do it quicker by using dark fibre — optical fibre cable that’s already in the ground but not yet “lit up” by the data-carrying laser beams.

Any telco with half a brain has dark fibre. If you’re digging expensive trenches, it doesn’t cost much to drop in a few extra cables while you’re at it. In the late 1990s, before the Dot-Com Bubble burst, demand was predicted to continue soaring. Telstra laid in plenty of spare capacity.

“There’s nothing imaginary about the many hundreds of kilometres of dark fibre out there,” writes former Telstra Wholesale employee “TerraMatt”.

“Telstra’s NDC division was so busy installing that new-fangled ‘fibre’ thing that companies like John Holland and (was it?) VisionStream were contracted to keep up.” And then there were start-ups like COMindico, many of whom went broke or. COMindico’s assets were bought up by SP Telemedia (now Soul Australia). What happened to the other networks?

According to TerraMatt, there’s dark fibre from the Pilbara to Perth and Kalgoorlie, Warrnambool to Geelong and Melbourne. Even Mt Gambier has fibre optic cable sitting there.

“It’s kind of like rats,” he says.

“There’s bound to be some fibre optic cable within about six feet of you…”

The rejection of their NBN bid is a great outcome for Telstra. They can pretend to fight the decision in the courts, delaying the release of that $4.7 billion of taxpayers’ largesse to their competitors. Meanwhile, Telstra gains a few more months to polish their 100Mbit DOCSIS 3 cable for capital cities and their to-be-announced-any-time-now 21Mbit Next G wireless broadband upgrade everywhere else — all joined together by Sol doing a quick “Fiat Lux!” on the dark fibre.

[Disclosure: Stilgherrian receives free Next G access from Telstra Country Wide as part of a technology seeding program.]

And after that was published…

There’s reader comments on the original piece from Monday and in the next day’s “Comments, corrections, clarifications, and c*ckups” column — the latter including the claim from a former Optus Vision contractor that Optus’ dark fibre network could be even bigger than Telstra’s. And the day after.

However the real fun started on Thursday

Telstra spinner Rod Bruem writes: Re. “Telstra holds back broadband speeds. Again” (Monday, item 1). Who is this “Stillgherrian” [sic] and why do you let him post reports on Crikey anonymously? His rants and raves are certainly not of the calibre of the legendary Hillary Bray. Could you please explain the rationale to your loyal readers?

The Hillary Bray he refers to isn’t the James Bond character, but political commentator Christian Kerr, who used to write for Crikey anonymously to keep secret his links with former Liberal senators. He now writes for The Australian.

What caught me, though, was Rod Bruem’s “own goal” of calling my name a pseudonym. Obviously he hadn’t checked. This gave me the chance to respond with extreme snark on a slow-news Friday:

Stilgherrian writes: “Who is this ‘Stilgherrian’?” asks Telstra flack Rod Bruem (yesterday, comments). Too funny, Rod! I don’t know about you guys over at Telstra, but here at Crikey we’ve got the internet. There’s this “Google” thing which we use to look up stuff. Apparently at Telstra you have “Sensis” instead, but even Sensis uses Google now. It takes just seconds to find an entire website about me, including a page called About Stilgherrian.

You can read about me and cows and gin and my geeky computing science background and my broadcasting career. There are photos too, including one of me with a bare-breasted garden gnome, and info about pretty much everything else in my world apart from my secret life as a goat dominatrix. Google says I’m on lots and lots of other websites too. I’ve even got a Facebook page!

The fantastic thing about Google is that even if you misspell my name like you did, Rod — don’t you have copy and paste at Telstra? — the first thing it says is “Did you mean: stilgherrian”. Clever, eh? If you use Sensis, you might not find my website straight away, ‘cos Sensis defaults to Australian pages only and my website is hosted in the US. It’s much cheaper there. Why is that, Rod?

“Why do you let him post reports on Crikey anonymously?” Well, Rod, if you’d done the Google thing, you’d have discovered that “Stilgherrian” is my real, actual legal name — like on my passport and Medicare card and the electoral roll and the endless bills and all those nasty letters I keep getting from the bank. I’m even in the phone book. Is the phone book a Telstra thing, Rod? If Telstra can still afford an intranet, you’ll find that I was a contractor to your marketing department a while back, and I’m currently trialling your rather nifty Next G mobile broadband network.

Look, I know it’s all very unusual, Rod, what with just a given name and no surname n’all, so maybe that’s enough of a challenge for this week? Or was there something you wanted to ask or say about the content of Monday’s article? What was it about again? Oh yeah. Telstra and the internet.

Didn’t you like it, Rod?

Since publishing those personal links, I’ve got some fan mail — some good, some rather disturbing.

I’m now also the number one Google search result for “goat dominatrix”. Make of that what you will.

Rod, to his credit, has since posted a comment, which I’m reproduce in full here:

Dear Mr Stilgherrian, please forgive me for not knowing who you are, not having Googled you and for spelling your name wrong. I hope you can forgive me for thinking Stilgherrian was a pseudonym — people spell my name wrong all the time, so I know how frustrating it is – and my parents gave me three names, not just one!

As a loyal Crikey reader my beef was actually with them for for not having properly introduced you to readers, given you were honoured with the lead story in the newsletter earlier in the week. Now I’ve seen your website and read your qualifications I can better understand where you’re coming from.

Yes I strongly disagree with some of your commentary, I think you misrepresented Sol Trujillo’s recent comments about what Telstra would do when faced with competition from another company building a national broadband network in competition with Telstra. You suggested Telstra was holding back an upgrade to the HFC cable, when in fact Telstra has upgraded the cable to much faster speeds than Optus, its nearest competitor. Is Optus holding Australia back even more?? It would be logical for Telstra to put on hold further upgrades when it had the potential to build the NBN. Now that is out of the question, Telstra of course looks to ‘Plan B’. Isn’t that a logical sequence?

You also suggest Telstra has held Australia back when it comes to faster broadband. I disagree with that view. The rules and policy settings are made by the Government. In most instances Telstra has led the way, in wireless we’re leading the world. But investment in the fixed network is complicated by many factors, especially the fact the rules force Telstra to subsidise competitors.

Telstra, as a private company has to compete and play by the rules. If things aren’t working, if investment isn’t happening, it’s silly to point the finger at the players rather than the referee. Companies make decisions based on how they think they can best make returns in the competitive marketplace. The rules as they stand have discouraged investment by allowing other companies to get a free ride on Telstra’s investments. If you want to attach more sinister overtones to how companies behave, you’re living in a conspiracy dream world, in my view.

Best wishes,
Rod Bruem

There’s also a similar-length comment from Wes:

Wow, I followed this little spat via Crikey, and look how it plays out. Telstra subsidising the competitors. Now I’ve heard everything. How about the taxpayer subsidising Telstra to position them into this strong-arming overlord who keeps Australia in the Dark Ages. And in return, we don’t get cheap, quality privatised service. Just privatised.

Now let me be clear. If I was Telstra, I would do exactly the same. But to send in a terrier spinner to try and make a case that Telstra are the champions of quality infrastructure in Australia is just cynical and no-one buys it. You’d be better off just saying ‘this tactic is in the interests of our shareholders’ and leaving it at that. No-one buys this dribble that Telstra are really the good guys. Not a soul. Not even Grandma, who just keeps ‘Telecom’, despite the kids trying to get her to move, since she’s been a Telecom booster since her nephew, Phil, used to work on the lines.

But you kids play nice, now. Play the ball, not the man. Telstra’s days are numbered anyway. Grandma will die, companies will figure out their blind loyalty makes no sense whatever. More money for less service never wins as a business model in the end. Telstra might get into plasma TVs or this new fangled woireless stuff, but Australia must get off this drip feed, and Telstra has to stop whining. But at least it’s amusing for now.

And for the record, this is the first time I have ever sided with anyone who ever mentioned anything to do with D&D. I am mellowing.

After all that, I’m exhausted! I’ll respond shortly. Meanwhile, do feel free to add your own comments!

2 Replies to “Telstra holds back broadband speeds. Again. (Revisited)”

  1. One can only hope that the days of Telstra’s monopoly are numbered. The company should have been broken up into different businesses when it was privatised.

    Telstra is a business and businesses aren’t generally overly friendly to their competitors.

  2. @Rowan: Telstra’s “monopoly” is slowly eroding as competitors build other bits and pieces of infrastructure.

    Certainly in most parts of Australia, Telstra is the only one with copper wires to every home and business, well-positioned buildings called “telephone exchanges”, and a massive array of connecting cables and microwave towers.

    But Optus has cabled up sections of a few cities too, and in the CBDs of Sydney and Melbourne there’s other players’ cables under the streets. There’s four main players with mobile wireless networks too — planety of competition — though Telstra is ahead in terms of coverage in all categories, as far as I understand. And now that I’ve experienced the mobile networks first-hand, Telstra Next G is the clear winner in technical terms.

    What shits me the most, though, is much of Telstra’s public attitude.

    If Telstra has the biggest market share and mindshare (which it does), and if its products really are the best (which they keep claiming) and if their marketing is competent (and why wouldn’t it be?), then they’ll continue to be the leader. So why act like such aggressive pricks all the time?

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