Dancing with the NBN Co stars

Summary:Time will tell how the rest of the NBN Co board shapes up, but it's hard to dismiss the credentials of its two most high-profile appointments so far.

An often-observed maxim about Australian television notes that there is only a fixed number of TV and sports stars, so celebrity-based reality shows will invariably run out of steam once the usual assortment of on-network personalities is shuffled through it. Start a new show, and the procession begins anew.

While some critics were quick to attack Minister Stephen Conroy ... the talent pool of similarly-qualified executives (30-plus years of industry experience in Quigley's case, and nearly 50 years in Campbell's) is relatively shallow.

In a niche field like telecommunications, the situation could not have been too dissimilar as the government narrowed down its list of candidates and eventually chose ex-Alcatel-Lucent executive Mike Quigley as NBN Co's new executive chairman and CEO apparent, at the same time appointing ex-Telstra executive Doug Campbell to head the NBN Co's Tasmanian subsidiary, TNBN.

Make no doubt about it: these guys know their way around Australia's telecoms environment — Quigley as head of a major and long-time supplier to Telstra, and Campbell as a long-time inhabitant of Telstra's senior echelon.

And while some critics were quick to attack Minister Stephen Conroy over the perception that the two appointments were giving Telstra undue influence in NBN Co, the fact is that the talent pool of similarly-qualified executives (30-plus years of industry experience in Quigley's case, and nearly 50 years in Campbell's) is relatively shallow.

Just as we can all predict with some certainty who will headline the next season of Dancing with the Stars, it can't be a big surprise that the few key executives with the expertise to run NBN Co properly have experience with, and in, Telstra.

Given Telstra's long-time and continuing dominance of Australian telecommunications, I'd wager that it's impossible to get anything like Quigley's and Campbell's expertise from anybody who has not had some sort of supplier or employee relationship with Telstra. After all, it was only 15 years ago that Telstra (or, to be more accurate, Telecom) pretty much was Australian telecommunications.

Did Rudd and Conroy choose these particular candidates to placate Telstra and somehow keep it at the NBN table? Given their ongoing rhetoric about independence and their historical standoff with Telstra — and their need to deliver something concrete from their NBN vision — one would think not.

Do the appointees' past Telstra relationships mean the NBN could evolve in a way that is more beneficial to Telstra than it otherwise might be? Possibly; many executives make no bones about pulling out their Rolodexes and getting back in touch with old mates they think can get things done or might benefit from their new position. Even Quigley's Alcatel-Lucent ties could support such allegations: the company, as Telstra supplier, had previously had a significant stake in Telstra's once-presumed ascendancy to the FTTN throne and Quigley himself is on the record as being highly critical of Telstra's FTTN competitors' claims that they could build anything to challenge Telstra's network.

But times have changed. It is with no small irony that Quigley now finds himself charged with delivering what, three years ago, he said couldn't be delivered. A read through his background suggests he is someone who has been through a lot, personally and professionally, and won't want to waste time with petty politics.

He seems to be a can-do person — and that's great, because his job requires engineering a nationwide fibre project to rival Telstra's own Next IP, which Alcatel-Lucent helped it build. Only this time, Quigley and Campbell can apply their intimate knowledge of Australia's telecoms infrastructure to building a converged network unencumbered by the weight of legacy switched telephony services.

In executing on Labor's most important policy, both appointees will be acutely aware that their roles will be under the deepest possible scrutiny, and the government's oversight of the NBN build puts them in a different position of power than they might be in a fully privatised company.

Appearances of favouritism will not be well tolerated, either by an actively interested media or a Labor government that will be particularly aware of the need for proper governance — if only to avoid the inevitable allegations of impropriety that a desperate Coalition would hurl at it during the upcoming election were there even a hint of pro-Telstra bias. This does not, it must be added, preclude Telstra's involvement in the NBN as one of many suppliers and service providers, but it does preclude Telstra having anything resembling influence on the NBN Co board.

Conroy may have been intending to implement a sort of built-in system of checks and balances that would minimise perceived pro-Telstra bias.

It's interesting to note that Quigley is effectively Campbell's boss, even though Campbell has nearly two decades' more industry experience. This can't be a coincidence: appointing an ex-Telstra executive as NBN Co head would have been political suicide. However, in giving Campbell direction over the smaller TNBN but putting Quigley in charge of the bigger picture, Conroy may have been intending to implement a sort of built-in system of checks and balances that would minimise perceived pro-Telstra bias.

Also interesting was Quigley's acknowledgement, in his interview this week with the Australian Financial Review, that his immediate priorities include building a roster of wholesale products and charting a future that includes a focus on digital TV. That may present an opportunity for Telstra, which faces a loosening grip on Foxtel and — with Foxtel or without it — is likely to see the NBN as a way to reassert itself in IPTV-delivered content. But it's also an opportunity for Telstra's competitors to access the same wholesale services in ways that were never before possible.

Specifics will emerge over time, but Quigley seems like a man who has hit the ground running — and already knows the lay of the land. As our experience with Sol Trujillo showed, driving major change in Australia's telecommunications market isn't easy, and gets harder when executives are seen to lack intimate knowledge of Australia's market. Quigley brings a depth of Australian and global market expertise that is shared by few. And Campbell? Well, as head of Telstra Countrywide he has brought internet services to more remote places than Tasmania. Any Telstra predilections he still holds onto, can be safely contained while being tapped into by Quigley and the rest of the board.

Time will tell how the rest of the NBN Co board shapes up, but it's hard to dismiss the credentials of its two most high-profile appointments so far. And with the eyes of the world on NBN Co, both will hopefully share a commonality of purpose and a sense of history that will let them set the NBN Co train in motion — and leave Telstra's influence at the station, where it belongs.

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Telcos, Telstra

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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