The Telstra Copper Ship Of Theseus

There were some interesting comments yesterday from Telstra CEO David Thodey, about his company’s opinion as to the state of the current copper Customer Access Network (CAN), the lines most of us use for telephone calls and internet access.

The condition of the network has been at the forefront of the alternative National Broadband Network (NBN) debate in recent times, with many questioning the ability of the CAN to deliver the speeds promised by the Coaltion’s FTTN plan, should they come to power at the September 14th federal election.

Thodey came out yesterday, stating he believe the CAN would be fine for 100 more years:

“Telstra CEO David Thodey has said that the company’s copper access network, which could be used under the Coalition’s fibre-to-the-node (FttN) alternative National Broadband Network (NBN) policy, could last for 100 more years and would not decompose.”

“Under the policy, instead of having fibre to the premises (FttP), Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has proposed following in the footsteps of international telcos such as BT and AT&T and instead deploy hundreds of thousands of nodes across the country and utilise the existing copper line — currently owned by Telstra — from the node to the premises.”

“Questions have been raised in the past about the condition of the copper network, given the age of the network, and Telstra has been reluctant to provide a full account for the state of its network. However, speaking to journalists outside a Trans Tasman Business Circle lunch in Sydney today, Thodey said that he believes the condition of the network is good.”

The anti-FTTP people are loving Thodey for it, but it seems to contradict Telstra’s own position from 2003, when at a Senate hearing they described the CAN as “five minutes to midnight”, giving it fifteen years of life – ie: until 2018, now only five years away:

“A month ago, before a Senate committee inquiry into broadband competition, Telstra’s Bill Scales and Tony Warren rather let the cat out of the bag.”

“Warren, group manager, regulatory strategy, told the committee: “I think it is right to suggest that ADSL is an interim technology. It is probably the last sweating, if you like, of the old copper network assets. In copper years, if you like, we are at a sort of transition – we are at five minutes to midnight.””

“A few minutes later his boss, Bill Scales, attempted to bury this bit of candour: “The only point of clarification, just so that there is no misunderstanding, is that when we think about the copper network, we are still thinking about 10 years out. So five minutes to midnight in this context…””

So what’s correct?

Without a full audit of the state of the network – (and nobody is going to do that) – we can’t really know.

What can we make of Thodey’s statement yesterday?

I say: “Ship of Theseus”.

Just like your grandfather’s 80-year-old axe – (it’s only had three new handles, and four new heads in that time) – of course the network could last 100 years. Or 200 years. Or 300 years.

“The ship of Theseus, also known as Theseus’s paradox, is a paradox that raises the question of whether an object which has had all its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. The paradox is most notably recorded by Plutarch in Life of Theseus from the late 1st century. Plutarch asked whether a ship which was restored by replacing all and every of its wooden parts, remained the same ship.”

Even Thodey seemed to suggest that it will probably be “replaced”, even it if remains a copper network:

“The copper has been going well for 100 years, I think it’ll keep going for another 100, but…you’ve got to keep things maintained.”

Even if the network lasts another 100 years, it won’t be the same copper as today – that’s effectively what he is saying. If we’re going to replace it anyway, why not do it the right way – with fibre?