Chris Watson


NBN Failure and the Ghost of Old Heavitree

OpinionChris Watson

“We have this day, within two years, completed a line of communications two thousand miles long through the very centre of Australia, until a few years ago a terra incognita believed to be a desert” – Sir Charles Hedley (Heavitree) Todd, the first message passed along the completed Overland Telegraph Line, 22nd of August 1872

One of these men is an innovator, talented leader and telecommunications pioneer. Pic - @leftocentre

Anyone who knows anything about Charles Todd, knows that we could have a world-class National Broadband Network (NBN) and soon. Listening to most of our political leaders though, you might be forgiven for thinking that it’ll take the best part of 15 or 20 years to deliver a sub-standard one.

Colonial Australia in the 1860s was an unimaginably isolated place by today’s standards. Before the completion of the Overland Telegraph Line (OTL), any message might have taken as long as three months to reach England with a corresponding three month wait for a response – half a year round trip for the merest of personal or business correspondence. In the simple act of connecting the lines at Frews Ponds, south of Daly Waters, and sending the telegraph message repeated above, Todd banished an age in which an inconceivable tyranny of distance held the emerging nation of Australia in check.

In that instant, the communication time with London went from 6 months… to 7 hours.

Absorb that for a few moments. 7 hours compared with 6 months. If you had your affairs in order at the start of the day, you might even get a reply by the close of business the same day!

Of course, there had been years of exploration, planning and construction leading up to that moment. The OTL still ranks beside the Snowy Mountains Scheme as one of the greatest achievements in engineering and infrastructure construction in Australian history. But once the project began it was completed in a dazzlingly short amount of time.

If you’re interested in learning more about the OTL project, and I can recommend it as a cracking yarn and a crucial bit of Australian history, there are plenty of resources available. One of the best is the book by Todd’s great-great-great-granddaughter Alice Thomson, The Singing Line.

The salient points are these: until 1862, a route south to north through the centre of Australia was unknown to the colonists. In that year, after six exploratory expeditions, Scotsman John McDouall Stuart finally succeeded in pioneering the route that the OTL would follow. The final contract for construction of the OTL was signed in 1870 and Todd was put in charge of the project. 30,000 poles and 3200km of line later, relying only on the Great Scot’s notebooks, maps and diaries and despite the vicissitudes of operating in the unknown and extreme environs of The Outback; despite striking work teams (at one point work ceased for a full five months) and still just seven months late, the job was done. Adelaide was connected with Darwin and from there to the rest of the world.

From the time they decided to build it, across the entire continent, through virtually unknown territory, it was finished in a shade over two years.

Two. Years.

From the time colonists first crossed the continent, to the time they'd spanned it with a line of communication, was less than ten years.

Now, 143 years later, our leaders are trying to tell us that it’s going to cost tens of billions of dollars and take 15 years or more to build a national network; with modern techniques and machinery; with a larger and more highly-trained workforce; in a landscape which is utterly well-known and accessible. Workers on the OTL faced death by disease, heat, cold, starvation, snake bite, crocodile attack or spearing. The greatest risk faced by an NBN worker will be a lingering bitterness on the tongue when the local barista burns the milk for their fifth latte of the day; perhaps a deep paper cut while filling out their daily Job Safety & Environment Assessment.

Furthermore, we’re now being sold an antediluvian Multi-Technology Mix (MTM) version of the network constructed, at least in part, of the same materials used by Todd – metal wire – when optic-fiber technology is readily available and preferable.

The numerous delays and budgetary blowouts involving the NBN fiasco are a matter of public record. If it weren’t for the constant changes of leadership and gamification of infrastructure projects, the thing could almost have been built by now.

Doesn’t it all smack of leaders behaving out of narrow self-interest despite a universal acknowledgement of the significance of this project to the national interest?

What would Old Heavitree make of all this? Sir Charles Todd passed away in 1910 at his home in Semaphore, Adelaide. I wish more people knew about him and the many things he achieved. Perhaps a better acquaintance with the extraordinary people from our history might make us less willing to accept the rampant ineptitude and chronic obfuscation that is currently on offer under the misnomer of leadership in our nation’s capital.