As part of the Kickstarter campaign for The Frustrated State book, Renai committed to publishing the stories of backers at the $350 tier and above on Delimiter. This is the story of Vladimir Lasky, which has also been sent to all backers of The Frustrated State.
“This thing was falsely portrayed as an ideological issue, the choice to use fibre for the NBN, whereas I felt it should have had bipartisan support.”
– Vladimir Lasky
Vladimir Lasky would be the first to admit that he hasn’t had a stereotypical, easy to predict career.
After graduating from high school in the late 1990’s, Lasky initially pursued a degree in Computer Systems Engineering at the University of Technology, Sydney. This led him to a variety of engineering roles, both in the academic world and in corporate life.
But that’s only part of Lasky’s life. He’s also spent a substantial amount of time pursuing an acting career. Unlike many technologists, both sides of his mind – the rational, technical side, and the unpredictable, creative side, are both well-developed. This fusion has led Lasky into some interesting roles.
Engineering skills are always in demand in major corporations. But in smaller, fast-moving companies, it’s often the combination of the ability to think laterally and come up with innovative solutions to intractable problems that makes those able to think creatively critical assets. This is where Lasky has achieved much of the success in his career, particularly in the field of teleoperation, where has a particular interest.
Lasky has often been involved in developing complex solutions which involved dealing with geographically dispersed systems. For example, in his work at UTS’ Remote Laboratories facility, he helped develop the ability for engineering students to carry out experiments on expensive equipment from any Internet-connected location, monitored with real-time streaming video and audio. Such equipment included embedded microcontrollers, PLCs and robots.
“At UTS and with the Remote Labs, I saw real cutting edge applications of high-speed broadband,” he says.
In 2018 such abilities are commonplace, but back in 2001 this was the kind of work that laid the foundation for many future innovations. During his years developing technologies in this field, Lasky kept on coming up against the same limitations time and time again:
“But we saw how limited it was when people had just slow ADSL connections. We had to have really low resolution video – such as 320×240 pixels at low frame rates.”
What Lasky realised was that the potential involved in remote monitoring and control applications was virtually limitless, across many different fields of human endeavour. But at the same time, that potential was being artificially limited by inadequate network infrastructure.
“We thought: We really need fibre to be able to really unlock the possibilities,” he says. To Lasky, the future was obvious: Ubiquitous high-speed broadband, based on Fibre to the Premises technology, would provide that infrastructure foundation that Australia needed.
This realisation placed Lasky in a difficult position. In his younger years, the engineer had been a member of the Young Liberals, although he is not affiliated with a political party at the moment. However, the debate over Labor’s National Broadband Network project had turned into a something of an ideological debate over which technology should be used for the rollout. Labor preferred the FTTP model favoured by most engineers in Australia, while the Coalition was going for a more minimalistic approach based on reusing technologies such as copper and HFC cables.
“This thing was falsely portrayed as an ideological issue, the choice to use fibre for the NBN, whereas I felt it should have had bipartisan support,” he says.
Lasky personally comes at politics from an economically conservative point of view, like many Liberals. For the engineer, even though the NBN is costing the Government a lot of money, it’s still worth the investment, because of the underlying advantages of fibre technology.
“There are clear justifications from an economically conservative point of view for creating a universal fibre infrastructure. It would remove bottlenecks in the economy and create a big market where everyone would be able to supply and access services that require high bandwidth,” he says.
“We’d also avoid harm to the economy by having unreliable communications – caused by corroded copper, radio spectrum congestion and other factors.”
This rationale is one reason why Lasky has been as disappointed as he is by the Coalition’s handling of the NBN issue over the past few years. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull particularly comes in for criticism from the engineer.
“Malcolm Turnbull was considered like the new hope – like Luke Skywalker from the original Star Wars movie. His background from OzEmail was lauded, and people, including me at one point, thought he was technologically savvy and would understand why fibre was a no-brainer,” Lasky says.
“That’s why it felt like a stab in the heart when he opposed the fibre NBN and trumpeted Fibre to the Node. I thought, my God, how could anyone want to use copper that’s been in the ground for 50 years, when the limitations are so well known?”
As Shadow Communications Minister in the years leading up to the 2013 Federal Election, Turnbull strongly opposed Labor’s big-spending FTTP NBN vision, proposing instead a version of the NBN where existing copper and HFC cable network assets owned by Telstra and Optus were incorporated into the NBN model.
Despite his economically conservative leanings, this brought Lasky and others into the political fight to ensure the survival of the NBN policy. At the time, Nick Paine’s petition on the site Change.org had called for the Liberal Party to reconsider its NBN model. Lasky and others printed the petition out and hand-delivered it to Turnbull’s electorate office in the Sydney suburb of Woollahra. A small crowd gathered on the day, including representatives from the media.
“I gave a speech outlining what Australia needs … I called his [Turnbull’s] NBN the Red Rattler NBN,” says Lasky, referring to the outdated suburban trains used in Sydney for many years.
“I explained that Fibre-to-the-Node will turn Australia into a telecommunications backwater and make it a much less attractive place for business. The presence of large ugly cabinets littering our streets will be a lingering monument to our folly of accepting this inferior architecture”.
“Opponents of Fibre-to-the-Premises called it the Rolls-Royce solution, but Australians would choose the Rolls-Royce over the Red Rattler any day. If Estonia, South Africa and other less wealthy countries can afford to implement Fibre-to-the-Premises, why can’t we? Why shouldn’t Australians get a quality solution?” he says.
Lasky’s political action on the NBN didn’t stop there. From that point on he got involved in writing letters to politicians on the issue, including Turnbull and then-Liberal leader Tony Abbott. Part of his motivation for continuing the effort was what he saw as the potential to damage Australia’s long-term interests. “It’ll take decades to fix, in my opinion,” he says, referring to Australia’s broadband infrastructure.
And it wasn’t only the Liberals that came in for criticism from Lasky. He believes part of the issue is the way that Labor framed the NBN issue to start with.
Lasky believes the project should have been named similarly to other Federal Government initiatives such as the Snowy Mountains Scheme. He says when he explains Labor’s rationale for the NBN project – essentially replacing outdated copper cables with fibre – people understand the project.
“I think it should have been called ‘FOCUS’ – the Fibre Optic Cable Upgrade Scheme,” says Lasky. “The focus would have been on the use of fibre – whereas ‘NBN’ was a technology-agnostic name.”
“I really felt that [Labor] did a terrible job explaining the need for it to the public. Terrible communication. Being involved in acting I very often talk to non-IT people, and I’ve been explaining the rationale for fibre to people who knew nothing about it, and they understood it when I explained it to them in simple terms.”
“In just a few sentences, I explained that the copper’s been in the ground for a long time, it’s starting to be corroded, and this really makes it harder to transmit signals. It’s time to upgrade it, and fibre’s like a magical technology, where it’s like a highway. You can add any number of lanes you want very easily. There’s no other technology like it.”
“And using the analogy of having a conversation in a crowded pub, I also explained why wireless technologies are not a substitute – they cannot provide good speeds when lots of people are using them at the same time – the radio spectrum and towers become too congested”.
There are also other areas where Lasky feels Labor did not make the best decisions when it came to the NBN. For example, points out that many of the areas of greatest demand for high broadband speeds came from the inner city zones, where many high-tech startups and IT incubators are clustered. Instead, as part of a deal between Labor and cross-benchers such as Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, much of the NBN was deployed in rural areas first.
Lasky also points out that the media didn’t always do the best job of reporting on the NBN issue, a situation which he believes was exacerbated by the NBN company’s own communications skills.
“To me, for a long time it seemed the NBN Co weren’t doing anything,” he says. “They weren’t talking much, whereas in fact they were building the backbone. They should have given regular status updates, far more detailed, showing progress, because Turnbull used that in his propaganda.”
“Turnbull said: ‘Look, NBN Co spent all this money and they only covered a few percent of the population. What terrible managers.’ When in fact it was a non-linear project. In the beginning they were building the backbone, they were identifying problems like mapping out the pit locations. All the background work. They were still ramping up, but he was trying to portray it as something that should have been linear in progress. And he succeeded in fooling people with that kind of propaganda.”
In some senses, Lasky is quite disappointed by the ‘frustrated’ state that Australia’s politicians have created when it comes to technology policy. His interests range broadly across many different fields.
“The government just moves so slowly, and by the time that’s happened, other countries have already moved ahead. You see this with … another one is the video-gaming industry. The video-gaming industry in Australia … Canada and all the Eastern Bloc of former Soviet countries, they’ve already got all of the stuff set up to support those industries. We’ve had bipartisan committees recommending Labour and Liberal coming together on improvements to be made to support those industries, and the government just ignores it for years on end, and it’s like, ’Do your job. Pull your finger out.’ You know?”
But it’s also true that Lasky’s efforts have met with some success.
One of the engineer’s earliest lobbying efforts saw him asking the NSW Liberal Party to support the installation of mobile coverage within the underground tunnels of Sydney’s rail network.
“When I was a member of the Young Liberals, I actually suggested this as a policy to [future NSW Premier] Gladys Berejiklian,” Lasky says.
“I explained this as a no-brainer that won’t cost you anything … all you have to do is say yes, and people will be very glad for it. It’s an easy win. Anyhow, she said, ’Oh, maybe.’ She was the Opposition back then, and she goes, ’Yes, maybe, tell me more.’ Anyhow, when she got in, she did it, and within one and a half years all the underground tunnels had mobile phone coverage.”
In my experience as a journalist and political advisor, I think Lasky and many others like him influence politicians and the political process more than they probably suspect. Politicians, after all, are human. They closely follow what people think of them, and the people that take the time to engage with them most of all.
Sometimes, as Lasky has found, and as is chronicled in the pages of The Frustrated State, the need for positive change in any one area can be quite ‘frustrated’ by a variety of factors.
However, it’s also important to realise that even things which may be perceived as small wins – such as convincing politicians to support mobile coverage to underground train stations – can actually make a huge different to many people. And even in the case of a major issue such as the NBN, just being heard by those in power can have an impact. This impact may not always be seen, but it’s always there.
Lasky notes that he currently uses the underground mobile coverage regularly – as do many Sydneysiders.
“So I like to think that perhaps I may have achieved something. I don’t know, I’m sure other people might have written to her about it, but I think that it’s possible that I may have helped form that decision,” he says.