Top 20 Stephen Conroy memories and milestones

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Top 20 Stephen Conroy memories and milestones
Stephen Conroy and Kevin Rudd in happier times.

Analysis: From gaffes to greatness.

Rumours of Stephen Conroy's departure from the Communications portfolio began soon after word filtered through of last night's change in Prime Minister.

The grave-dancing started almost immediately and escalated when Conroy's office confirmed the Minister had stepped aside.

While he undoubtedly drove some deeply unpopular policies in the portfolio, Conroy also hit a number of high notes that get few complaints from the industry — the $250 million backhaul blackspots program springs to mind.

He's also had his fair share of gaffes, gutsy moves and outrageous statements. Here's the top 20 defining moments of his Communications tenure - feel free to add your own.

20. #Spill? Can't, the soccer's on

It seems only fitting to cast our minds back to the heady days of June 2010 when Julia Gillard rolled Kevin Rudd for the Labor leadership. "Everyone said: 'Were you up all night making phone calls, on the phone lobbying for the leadership?'" Conroy told an SBS TV program. "I said, 'No, I was watching the soccer'." He saw World Cup matches with England and the Socceroos, nabbed a scant few hours sleep and headed into the caucus meeting that would end up dumping Rudd. Priorities.

19. Sitting with the United Nations

The Communications Minister had the honour of being made a founding member of the United Nation's Broadband Commission for Digital Development. The commission was charged with defining strategies for accelerating broadband rollout worldwide — and recognised Conroy's role in driving broadband access as a key policy platform throughout his tenure.

18. Shout-outs

There aren't too many Communications Ministers iTnews can recall that have committed the online handles of policy advocates to the public record. Many of these are words and spellings which one may never have previously thought possible to end up in Hansard.

Senator Conroy: I would like to send a thank you to UTC, anniepink, Tailgater, ungulate; and particularly Frood, The Lost and Axman6, who have come out on a very cold Canberra night to listen to what—
CHAIR: Are you still speaking English?
Senator Conroy: Yes. These are names online: aarq-vark, Megalfar, jwbam, Texmex, Cadibas, Mud Guts, FatPat, Murdoch, The Monsta, Seven Tech, Mr Creosote and Glass Snowy. Also a hello to miah. I thank all of them for playing Whack-A-Mole with all the trolls online.

17. A proper send-off for Sol?

A mini-furore erupted after Telstra's former chief Sol Trujillo parted ways with the telco. Trujillo alleged to the BBC that Kevin Rudd had summed up Trujillo's exit with 'Adios', which led to accusations that the Prime Minister was racist. (Rudd denied this).

Conroy won praise for his assessment of Trujillo's contribution to the telecommunications industry, though he perhaps undid this work when he compared current Vodafone Australia boss Bill Morrow with Trujillo earlier this year.

16. Free physics lessons

Conroy liked to roll out the "laws of physics" one-liner whenever a proposal arose that challenged the national broadband network. He invoked the "the laws of physics" to dispute assertions about the life and cost of fibre networks in November 2010, to highlight the constraints of wireless technologies in March 2011, and the potential for interference at cell boundaries. Critics could often be found "defying" or "reinventing" those laws.

Read on for the remaining 15 memories and milestones.

15. Provided the seed funding for ACCAN

This one's fairly self-explanatory, but effectively Conroy stumped up a $700,000 grant to get the Australian Communications Consumers Action Network (ACCAN) off the ground. ACCAN has since taken a leading — and very public-facing — role in fighting for consumer rights in the telecommunications arena, taking on issues such as bill shock, customer service standards and poor coverage.

14. Pulling the pin on OPEL

OPEL Networks was a 50:50 joint venture between Optus and Elders that was charged with bringing broadband services to regional and rural Australia, fulfilling a then-Coalition Government policy initiative. The project was to use a mix of wireless and ADSL2+ technologies. Conroy initially committed to honour the OPEL contracts, but pulled the pin on funding about five months later, citing alleged contractual shortfalls.

The decision to can OPEL saw Telstra drop legal action it had filed against the Coalition Government that instigated OPEL. Optus threatened legal action, though did not appear to file any.

13. Booting Telstra from the NBN RFP

With OPEL scrapped, the Government started canvassing prospects to build what became known as NBN mark 1. One of the defining moments of mark 1 was Telstra's exclusion from the process by Conroy for failing to meet "one of five mandatory requirements". The carrier had submitted a 13-page document to the Government that fell short of its requirements. Excluding the incumbent could be classified as a gutsy move.

12. iiTrial contempt, f-bombs and other gaffes

Though not particularly gaffe-prone, Conroy made a couple over the years that stand out. He famously put himself in potential prejudice of the outcome of the trial between the film industry and iiNet when he compared the ISP's "stunning" defence to a Yes Minister episode. The comment didn't go down too well with iiNet chief Michael Malone, who sought legal advice, and the Opposition piled on allegations of prejudice.

Conroy made some other notable gaffes, including an inadvertent leak of the value of Telstra's copper assets, and dropping the f-bomb and s--t into a pair of speeches.

11. Targeted backhaul blackspots

One hears few, if any, complaints about the Regional Backbone Blackspots Program, which saw $250 million put into an open access transmission network spanning large sections of regional Australia. The network was built by Nextgen Networks, and won praise and support from ISPs, which wasted little time in making use of the transmission network.

Read on for more Stephen Conroy memories and milestones.

10. Big Red Button

The button started life as a piece of software targeting school children. It hovered above applications to allow children to click on it and report uncomfortable online situations.

The concept morphed into something else during Conroy's tenure, with a big red button making repeated appearances at various go-live events for the national broadband network.


(From Left: NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley, ACT Senator Kate Lundy and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy switch on the NBN in Gungahlin in Canberra. Photo courtesy: Kate Lundy)

9. Set high price on digital dividend spectrum... and didn't sell it all

Conroy outraged mobile telcos when he set a reserve price of $1.36 per megahertz per population for auction lots of 700 MHz spectrum. The price was well above the most optimistic estimates of financial analysts, and resulted in some criticism that it was "unworkable". In the end, not all of the spectrum sold at auction, netting less money for the Government than Conroy had anticipated.

8. Structural separation ultimatum

Conroy will undoubtedly claim Telstra's structural separation as a major victory of his tenure as Communications Minister — and it was a victory achieved in part by some hardball played by the Minister. In short, Telstra was told it could not bid for the 'waterfront' 700 MHz and 2.5 GHz digital dividend spectrum if it stayed vertically integrated, which would have seriously inhibited its future LTE network. As one article put it, "Conroy makes Telstra an offer it can't refuse".

7. Going it alone on NBN

Conroy's most positive legacy is the $43 billion National Broadband Network, though it may not have been executed as fast as he or other advocates might have hoped. The decision to scrap NBN mark 1 and go it alone on the construction of the network was a major milestone of Conroy's reign as Communications Minister. Arguably he's had a pretty good crack at kicking some early goals — its popularity and soaring take-up rates ultimately forced the Coalition to abandon thoughts of demolishing the network, as they had initially pledged. Its future remains uncertain post-election, though Labor will be hoping the change of prime minister can give NBN Co another three years to get on with the job.

6. Stop the cherry-pickers

Conroy drove a myriad of legislation through parliament to set the regulatory framework for the operation of the NBN, though few pieces proved as controversial as the anti-cherry picking provisions. Pricing for the NBN is averaged, meaning metropolitan areas subsidise access costs in regional and rural parts of Australia. The Government and its advisors feared that carriers other than NBN Co might try to deploy their own superfast networks "in high-income and low-cost, high-density areas and then undercut NBN Co's average price due to the lack of any need to subsidise operations in higher-cost areas".

The answer was to draft laws to the effect that no company may build or operate a network that competes directly with NBN Co for customers.

The proposed laws predictably caused outrage. They were later watered down slightly to exclude backhaul network providers as well as fibre builders that serviced only corporate and government clients. Both groups were previously considered to be collateral damage.

The laws passed but some problems remain. iiNet had to seek variations to cherry-picking exceptions in order to cut the price of FTTP services on the TransACT network (which it has since sold to NBN Co.)

Read on for iTnews' top five memories and milestones of Conroy's tenure.

5. One lane bridge

"They are planning to build the broadband equivalent of a Sydney Harbour Bridge with only one lane".

It's the simplistic analogy that has caused many image problem headaches for the Coalition in trying to sell its broadband policy. It has become a very effective counter to the Coalition's own oft-repeated claims of cost blowouts of Labor's NBN ($90 billion anyone?), and Conroy hasn't been shy about rolling the analogy out in his media engagements this year. The only question is, did he get it from reading the troll comments on Opposition communications minister Malcolm Turnbull's own blog?

4. Defeats calls for an NBN cost-benefit analysis

Conroy gives up the Communications portfolio having consistently resisted calls by Malcolm Turnbull for a cost-benefit analysis of the current NBN. Turnbull has been pursuing one since his very first media interview in the shadow communications role. It could even help the NBN's cause, as we pointed out back in 2010. Conroy was still dismissing the need for one as late as April this year. It's probably more realistic to expect a cost-benefit analysis of the Coalition's broadband policy before one on the current NBN.

3. ISP filtering<

Conroy used his first major speech as Communications Minister in early 2008 to make good on an election commitment to introduce ISP-level content filtering.

The type of content caught up by the filter morphed over time, initially creeping to "unwanted material" and P2P traffic, before being scaled back to "Refused Classification" material. Conroy also at one stage tried to have Google censor YouTube, though the web giant wasn't too keen.

The mandatory ISP filtering proposal caused outrage. It riled people up enough to actually protest in real life; it led to Anonymous' Operation Titstorm, and caused a range of government web properties to be defaced or DDoSed. A petition by Electronic Frontiers Australia ran to over 19,000 signatures.

Conroy stood steadfast against the avalanche of criticism, even refusing a request from within Labor to consider making the filter opt-out rather than mandatory.

However, implementation of the filter was delayed in 2010, and then further stalled until mid-2013. Eventually the plan was shelved in November 2012.

Content filtering hasn't died, however, thanks to a new front in the battle — section 313 notices.

2. Red underpants

Conroy's most bizarre comments came at a New York telecommunications conference, and have since entered the telecommunications folklore.

Boasting about his "unfettered legal power" over the local telecommunications industry, Conroy made it clear who wears the pants in the relationship.

"... I'm in charge of spectrum options and if I say to you, everyone in this room you want to bid next week in our [700 MHz] spectrum auction you better wear red underpants on your head, I've got some news for you — you'll be wearing them on your head," he said. "Not many regulators have quite that much power."

Though he got most of Australia's mobile telcos to pay a high price for the spectrum assets (see point nine), it's unclear if any of the bidders wore red underpants on their heads. The Australian Communications and Media Authority, which ran the auction, declined to provide a running commentary on the auction process.

In fact, the only person known to have donned a pair of red underwear is Internode founder Simon Hackett...

1. Longevity

Conroy survived at least one leadership spill and a revolving door of sparring partners from the Coalition, including Bruce Billson, Nick Minchin, Tony Smith and Malcolm Turnbull.

Not only did he outlast the shadow figures, Conroy was rewarded with an even bigger remit in 2010 as the "Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity".

The only question now is, who will take his place.

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