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.]

Peter Fray

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