Phil Burgess exits Telstra

Phil Burgess, one of Sol Trujillo’s famous ‘amigos’ has announced his return to the States at the end of August 2008.

In three years as Telstra’s main spokesperson, Burgess won respect for his fierce prosecution of Telstra’s positions.  He also drove us to distraction with his one-sided rhetoric.

Here’s a report from my ‘Hands On’ AFR column on one of Burgess’ classic efforts in March 2007.

If we hadn’t heard it with our own ears, we would never have believed that Telstra works the way it does.  Apparently, the sight of children playing games spurs it to spend a billion bucks.  Really.

We were privileged to hear Telstra subpremo – that’s a rung or so below a supremo – Dr Phil Burgess explain that Australia is suffering from a broadband drought, and how Coonan, the doctor’s shorthand for the Telecommunications Minister, and Samuel, aka the Chairman of the ACCC, are stalling Telstra’s drenching rains.  Really.

It seems that the decision to spend a billion on Telstra’s latest high speed network was taken on a flight back from an outback town where Sol, as the doctor is entitled to dub Telstra’s CEO, had toured the sparse facilities on offer, including the distance school.  Sol and the doctor had no idea what a distance school might be – this despite the fact that George Bush would probably figure out it was a school for people a long way away.

At the distance school, a Texan’s life was changed.  Little Aussie kiddies, realising that time for a downloaded lesson had arrived, started their PCs pulling down the files and left them going while they played with blocks or drew pictures.  It dawned on Sol that these poor mites actually knew that their online lessons would take a while to download, and actually had the wits to do other stuff until the downloads finished.  This was human tragedy in extremis.

Actually, we don’t mind the idea that everything isn’t instant.  No doubt these same poor mites suffer a slow home cooked dinner each evening, instead of instant city fast food.  Maybe they’ll grow up understanding that some of the best meals take hours to cook, and it’s rewarding to sit and chat while the billy boils.  But that’s just our take on it.

If you find yourself near Sol on a flight home, ask for a different seat.  It’s normally the worst part of the day, says the doc.  Do this, do that, do ten other things barks Sol as he hands out the job list arising from the day’s observations.  But not this night.  Sol was eerily quiet.

What’s on your mind, Sol ? solicited the doctor.  Brooding.  No, Sol, where’s your head at ?  I’m ashamed, Sol says.  Telstra should be ashamed.  Australia should be ashamed.  Those little kiddies draw pictures while they wait for downloads.  Shame, Australia, shame.

Within a few months of that apocalyptic flight, an army of Telstra staff completed a task that should have taken a year.  A new high speed network was planned, and delivered not long afterward.  When Sol’s heart goes out, it goes out at warp speed.  Crikey, we can’t talk our general manager into buying a new fax machine without making a business case.  If there was a business case for Telstra’s ten figure splurge, it seems to have been the CEO’s anguish.  Really.

Then we heard about The Enemy.  Not Sol’s enemy, but by implication Australia’s.  With a series of graphic maps, Dr Phil showed us the areas of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane that presently enjoy Telstra’s up-to-20 Mbps service, and the extra areas where it could be made available in 48 hours, if only Coonan and Samuel would give Telstra a letter saying they would not confiscate Telstra’s assets in these places.

This was a none too oblique reference to a thing called the access regime.  Basically, it’s a law that lets the ACCC force Telstra to share certain scarce telecoms resources with others in the industry if it considers that’s in the best interests of Australians.  Quoth the doctor, Mr Samuel recently gave a speech in which he seven times used the monopoly word about Telstra.  We stopped counting when the doc had eight times used the confiscation word about Coonan and Samuel.

It seems that the broadband drought facing Australia is largely artificial.  If Telstra either accepted the regulatory regime into which it was born, or simply took up Mr Samuel’s invitation to apply for a partial exemption from the access regime, millions of Australians would double, triple or better their access speeds.

In question time, the obvious was asked:  Would a change of government make a difference ?  Well, maybe.  But Dr Burgess had only recently learned that this was an election year.


About Peter Moon

Peter Moon is a commercial lawyer with 20 years experience in the tech and telco industries.
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