A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the NBN

Once upon a time, way back in the year 2000, a group of people sat in one of the first houses built in Launceston, Tasmania. The house was a large pale Victorian edifice, which, having been built in 1830, had seen a number of incarnations. It had been, at different times, a private home for a wealthy landowner, a private hospital, a small school and a childrens home, a barrister’s offices and was now a combination home to a family, and the hub of a cluster of companies. While teenage kids entertained their mates at the back of the house, captains of industry met around a huon pine table in the bay window of the large library at the front. Firelight from logs burning in the tiled grate flickered off mahogany bookshelves, groaning under the weight of thousands of books which lined the walls.

On this particular day a board meeting was to be held in preparation for a key summit the next day with a former Australian Premier and respected Minister for Education, a current Australian Premier, the Heads of major telecommunications companies from Australia and Singapore, the CEO of a company employed by various defence forces, the CEOs of two education companies, a CFO or two, one Vice Chancellor, a representative of the ASEAN Secretariat and a partridge in a pear tree – me!

We were, at that time, in the advanced stages of planning a major telecommunications initiative to export education content from universities, colleges and schools in Australia to Asia and the Middle East.

Investigations had been undertaken and costings done which showed clearly that fibre-optic cable would be difficult in Australia for two reasons – it would be expensive to lay, but more importantly it was the ‘last mile, or two’ that was most difficult. The challenge of figuring out how to overcome the last piece of the puzzle, in getting the right cable from the nodes (if they were to be built) to people’s actual homes. This is the piece the coalition have conveniently omitted from their ‘plan’ and why their policy has been roundly criticised. The cost to the ‘end-user’ was phenomenal back then, more so now, and totally prohibitive to anyone not living immediately adjacent to a ‘node’.

The other option we were discussing at that time, satellite-based broadband with its accompanying challenges of communication protection from both hacking and physical interference, and the issue of the system ‘going down’ through radio and other atmospheric interferences.

With such major challenges to deal with, who would have thought the ensuing board meeting would have turned out as it did.

‘Can we get started everyone?”

We all settled into our chairs ready for another morning of planning, passionate argument, debate and negotiation.

A phone rang.

“Sorry I need to get this.” Our illustrious Chairman muttered furiously into his phone for a few minutes before ringing off- a huge smile on his face.

”He’s making serious ground. This is looking good.”

‘What’s looking good?”

“He’s ahead on primary votes and it looks as if he might get over the line.” A politician through and through our Chairman had turned his talents to nurturing and mentoring newbies though the jungle of trying to get elected and was beaming at the thought of his most recent protegee winning a seat in this election.

“OK let’s continue- where’s Francois?”

Two of us had been dreading that question since the previous night. Francois was in jail. A hot-headed Frenchman he’d taken exception to an airline attendant telling him to sit down when he needed to go to the bathroom. It was kind of understandable. He’d been diagnosed that morning with prostate cancer, and he couldn’t wait. There are no extenuating circumstances when planes are coming in to land. As a result he’d been hauled off the plane by burly cops and left to cool his heels in a cell.

“So is he coming? We need him here for this discussion.”

“Well he should be here later if we can get him bailed out, but then there’s another problem, neither of us can get home.”

“Why not?”

“Well the airlines won’t let him on a plane now, and as I was travelling with him I seem to be guilty by association so they won’t take me either.”

“So what are you like at swimming? It’s a bit of a trip across Bass Strait if you don’t have a boat.” Attempts at humour didn’t go down at all well at that point.

“Does anyone know a local lawyer? We probably should try and get him out.”

“Nah, leave him there. Do him good, and we might actually get some decisions finalised before tomorrow” came from one of his lesser fans.

“Yeah, I do,” chorused two voices.

“Well you two go and sort that out while the rest of us have a coffee.’

The Chairman was back on his phone again. Another 45 minutes and I had the lawyer sorted. Francois had made his one call – to us – asking for more cigarettes. The language used was unprintable. He wasn’t concerned about the international visitors arriving late that afternoon, but was very vocal about his treatment by the local constabulary.

“OK, now can we start?” Another phone rang. There was quiet all round.

“She’s fine? How big? OK?”  Shutting up his phone Martin announced, “My wife has just had a son.”


“What the hell are you doing here? Can’t accountants deal with hospitals?”

“How is she?”

“What’s the baby’s name?”

I never knew blokes were so interested. Why he was there was beyond me, though it reinforced my view of him. I had always seen him as an unfeeling bastard.

“Are you OK?” I must have been looking pale, probably at the remembered pain of childbirth. I think all women who have been through it tend to cross their legs when they hear of others giving birth.

“I’m fine, ta. My last attack was last week, but if I pass out today you know what to do.” A chorus of “Put you on the floor, put your feet up, don’t call an ambulance, and don’t get your suit dirty” from two seemingly empathetic members of the board.

“Yeah, that’ll do it.” We were all getting used to my heart problems even if they did scare the hell out of everyone.

“OK anything else?” The Chairman still trying to bring order.

“Yep, if I don’t call the airlines now and get this sorted I’ll be in strife,” said the defence telecommunication expert. “I need to get home tomorrow night as I’m leaving for London the next day.”

“I’ll come and help. My local travel agent might be able to work it out while we get on with the meeting. They’re pretty good at disaster relief.” Another 45 minutes was taken and more coffee consumed while he and I made very assertive statements, and occasional tantrums at our phones. The tantrums won. He was sorted.

“Can we start now?” asked the Chairman.

“Well one of us has to go and be there to get Francois bailed. We need to identify him apparently.”

“How long will that take?”

“Shouldn’t be long, but we’ll have to wait our turn as he has to front a magistrate.”

“Where’s lunch?”

“I really need a coffee.”

“You just had one. How much can a coffee addict take?”

“I’ve got a better idea. Is there any wine downstairs. I think we should at least christen Martin’s new baby.”

“I think we need to postpone the meeting. What was the agenda again”!!!!!!!!!!!!!

In a postscript, the following day went smoothly and ended with an agreement to finalise contracts in readiness for signing the following month. But, in a further series of follies, the, then, Premier of Tasmania, died and was replaced by the pretender, someone far more interested in racing, gambling and cutting down the state’s magnificent timber resources than education. The government’s position shifted significantly and their insistence on the inclusion of gambling as a key platform, something most of the rest of us were vehemently opposed to, became the death knell of the project.

In the interim, the Chairman’s protegee not only won a seat in parliament, but progressed rapidly to become Premier himself, following the demise of pretender. Other countries also made massive strides in the use of technology leaving Australia in their wake. It became possible to sit in the middle of a park in Estonia, or in a cafe in Vietnam, and even on the beach in Cuba and send emails home to Australia.

It’s wonderful to see the National Broadband Network finally taking shape. It will transform this country.

But I do miss those Board meetings.