The Cabinet of David Cunliffe

It's time to talk about German expressionism and its role in the telecommunications industry

I think we need to talk horror for a moment. My favourite German expressionist film (all right, it’s the only German expressionist film I’ve ever seen), is The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It’s a horror film made in 1920 and its influence on the genre is evident in the following brief description.

“The carnival comes to the sleepy town of Holstenwall, bringing with it the mysterious Dr Caligari and his somnambulist (sleepwalking) carnival act, Cesare. Francis, a student, visits the carnival with his friend Alan, whom Cesare prophesies will die that night. This indeed comes to pass, but is everything as it seems?”

(The cabinet in the film’s title refers to the large box from which Cesare emerges in his sleepwalking state; Cesare then makes his prophecies).

What makes Caligari so cool is the suggestion that the whole story might well be contained in the mind of a madman and not actually happening at all. The film’s influence on Germany in the years leading up to Hitler’s rise to power is hotly debated among expressionist buffs and is more than a little alarming.

We have our own cabinets to be alarmed about, of course. Hardly as exciting as Herr Doktor’s, ours are government issue paint number 285-3 (green) and squat on roadsides all over the country. But the role they will play in our own forthcoming telco drama is not to be underestimated.

Telecom’s Next Generation Network (NGN) plan is to do away with as many exchanges as possible, rolling its fibre network out deep into the hinterland (sleepy old Holstenwall) to these roadside boxes.

The good news here is that this means the backhaul from the boxes to the network will be fabulously fast. There will be no more fighting over 24kbit/s per customer. Gigabits will be the order of the day.

The bad news is the boxes are rather small and alarmingly full of kit already.

Unbundling will allow Telecom’s competitors to put their DSLAMs (the devices that change your analogue phone line into a high-speed broadband connection) into Telecom’s exchanges and roadside cabinets. With the exchanges going, the ISPs will have to rely instead on mini-DSLAMs, about the size of a fat video cassette, and will have to put these into said green cabinets whenever they want to offer their own services.

Cue eerie music, because these cabinets are really unsuited to such things. The one at the end of my street (and for ISPs desperate to work out which lines to unbundle, and where to install their ADSL2+ equipment, I can provide you with location details on request) is roughly two metres long by one metre tall and about a handspan thick. There’s really only just enough room in there for one treadmill and a couple of hamsters working in rotation (pun intended).

I asked David Cunliffe about the cabinets and he said the government will have to look at the Resource Management Act because, clearly, if an ISP wants to unbundle a particular line and needs to put equipment into these cabinets they’ll need to be able to go ahead without fighting through the courts along the way.

Slingshot founder Annette Presley tells me she is concerned about the potential for confusion over access to these cabinets, and indeed what will happen should a cabinet’s physical size limit the amount of competition in the market place.

This whole situation will need to be sorted out in a hurry. If Telecom does decide to play silly buggers with the process, something I hope it realises won’t help it at all in the eyes of the Ministry of Economic Development, we could well see the unbundled solution take months to kick off. That’s not going to help Telecom, the ISPs or end users.

Fortunately, the new Telco Act isn’t written yet and we can make ourselves heard before it’s too late. We’ve got one shot at getting this right so we’d best make sure we’re all fully involved in the project.

The final word must surely go to Caligari. His cabinet “[expresses] internal psychological states through subjective distortion of the external world.” Now, doesn’t that sound horrifyingly familiar?

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