When we open a new lane on the Hume Highway, or a bridge or an airport runway or a container wharf, there’s a public ceremony. Ribbons are cut. Sausages are sizzled. Politicians hog the cameras. Newspapers run commemorative wrappers.
In the lead-up, the media reports on the project’s progress as each milestone is reached. Or missed.
All these things are “infrastructure”, the physical fabric of our society. It’s important news. So why don’t we see this level of attention when the infrastructure in question is the internet?
Over the weekend, Pipe International’s new PPC-1 undersea fibre-optic data link from Guam to Sydney was fired up. As Crikey reported in May, when the cable was landed at Collaroy on Sydney’s northern beaches, PPC-1 will increase Australia’s international data capacity by almost 50%. That’s like adding the third runway at Sydney Airport.
Yet apart from specialist IT media like iTnews there was just one solitary mainstream story. In The Australian. And even that was more about some scrag-fight with the Collaroy Plateau Cricket Club over the state of the turf.
It’s not like this isn’t newsworthy. PPC-1 is a $200 million project run by a public company. In December 2008 it almost went under when negotiations with financial backers collapsed. It was rescued three weeks later.
There’s a competition angle. This is the first telco-neutral submarine cable for broadband. Previous ones have been owned by Tier-1 telcos like Telstra and Optus. Sticking it up the big telcos is always a great angle.
Even though the cable itself is only as thick as your finger and, eventually, buried, there’s plenty of iconic imagery for photo opportunites. Ships battling the elements and even pirates. Brawny blokes hauling ropes. Spooky-looking data centres.
iTnews editor in chief Nate Cochrane says trying to get coverage for anything related to IT is a constant problem. “I was at The Age for 11 years and the science writers and medical writers all have bloody foreheads from banging their heads on the table in frustration trying to get their stories up,” Cochrane told Crikey.
“There’s this news desk culture which comes from a particular background where computers weren’t part of the furniture. A lot of the discussion has to be geared around a certain conversation that the paper is already having with its readers.”
In other words, they’re stuck in a rut.
The media’s lack of interest is matched by the politicians. Broadband minister Senator Stephen Conroy did launch the rescued PPC-1 project in January. Since then, nothing.
How many dignitaries came to Pipe’s cable-landing ceremony in May?
“None,” Bevan Slattery, Pipe International’s CEO, told Crikey.
“We did have a representative from the Queensland government, but we didn’t have any politicians.”
In a few days’ time, Pipe is sending out invitations to the launch of PPC-1 which, if all goes well, will be on 8 October. That mailout will include invitations to both the Prime Minister and Senator Conroy to formally open the new data link.
“We’re inviting the PM because I think this is a massive success story for an Australian company,” Slattery told Crikey. “To get through the GFC and deliver this new capacity is a great achievement.”
Are you up for it, Mr Rudd? Mr Conroy? I like the idea of some commemorative stamps, myself. Something with a Soviet Constructivist look might work.