Telco shootout: Dr Deane does battle with foreign hordes

You don't see him coming; rather, your nostrils crinkle with the spicy, indulgent tang of a flamboyant male perfume. Then, it's the noise, the chattering, the beautiful women who eddy around him, the black-clad security guards who clear the way.

You don't see him coming; rather, your nostrils crinkle with the spicy, indulgent tang of a flamboyant male perfume. Then, it's the noise, the chattering, the beautiful women who eddy around him, the black-clad security guards who clear the way.

Then, finally, it is Dr D--in a belted robe of orange silk, punching the air, jogging double-time as the entourage streams towards the debating hall. He raises his head, pulls back his shoulders and displays the clear, bright visage of a winner. He is the most valuable CEO in the country and he is sex on a stick.

Oh, alright ... Dr Roderick Deane's arrival actually isn't like that at all. In reality, he shuffles in as is his wont, shortly before this year's TUANZ telco showdown, The Men at the Helm. But after last year's escapade (variously regarded as either inspired or insulting), when Dr D hired Gary McCormick to lob him soft questions to answer instead of the hard ones his fellow CEOs had spent 40 minutes firing, anything is possible.

Anyway, TUANZ has changed the format this year. With Telstra's arrival making the shootout a four-way affair, it has been conceived as an onstage debate. It might seem a little one-sided, what with Deane being up against a united opposition, but it's better than being cannon-fodder on Holmes because a couple of thousand people can't get their phones fixed. That's Clive Litt's job.

A sizeable crowd has gathered as the lights go out and the multimedia disco frenzy that is TUANZ's 1996 theme cranks up. Under cover of darkness, the bosses of Telecom, Telstra, BellSouth and Clear enter the hall and sit in the reserved seats in the front row. They all sit together, except Deane, who leaves a one-seat gap between himself and Telstra's MD, Peter Williamson. Is this a sign of niggle to come?

The four take the stage, along with the chair for the day, Ian Fraser, who launches right in with that LP Hartley quote about the past being a foreign country, where they do things differently.

"And perhaps," he continues. "The present is a foreign country too."

This might be seen as a little tasteless given that three of his four guests are, respectively, an Australian, an Englishman and an American. After reading out a list of unpleasant things each man has said about the other, he suggests their ongoing enmity is "an encouraging sign of continuity". The mind boggles.

The first of the questions canvassed from TUANZ members concerns number portability, which everyone quickly agrees is a jolly good idea. BellSouth's Larry Carter, a polite Southern gentleman from Atlanta, notes that achieving portability "will be a challenge to all of us" and "will require some co-operation".

Fraser next puts the content question. Should telcos be in the business of creating it? The whole room sighs with relief when Deane affirms that he is not Sam Goldwyn and somebody else should make the movies Telecom cable will carry.

It is not until the question of common standards is put that the snarling begins. Deane won't have a bar of any third party setting standards. Williamson suggests a "delinquency" in Telecom's attitude. Clear's CEO Andrew Makin suspects it is "time to develop a position". He complains that life is made difficult by the fact that every country has a different-shaped electric plug.

"Difficult for one of us, anyway," Carter drawls drily. "These are motherhood platitudes we're mouthing. It is insanity, not natural, to expect a decision on anything other than commercial self-interest from any of these four entities."

Entity? Who are you calling an entity, Yank? Carter continues, maintaining that the market's best interests would be served by "some other hand" making these decisions in the marketplace.

"So what if one standard wins and another loses," snaps Deane. "That's life. That's better than letting some bureaucrat decide."

It may, of course, be bureaucrats who decide whether Telecom can bid in the next round of radio spectrum auctions. Makin leaps in, declaring that "we need either a greater degree of self-control from Telecom, or some form of control."

Sensing a warming of the debate, Williamson declares that "Clear versus Telecom would never have occured in Australia."

"Nonsense," snarls Deane. "Optus hasn't even achieved the market success that Clear has here."

"I can't make apologies for Optus's performance," deadpans Williamson, to the delight of the crowd. Slam-dunk to the Wild Colonial Boy.

Sensing he might have more luck with Makin, Deane declares that "Andrew spends his life pleading for government intervention."

Makin, with Ghandiesque selflessness, gestures to us all as he cries "I'm not after government intervention on my side--but on these people's side!" A small baby is brought forward to the stage that he might bless it.

It's about time for the number portability argument again--and this time it comes back with a vengeance. Why, demands Deane, can't his competitors see that the real, immediate solution is call forwarding?

"Because you're going to charge everyone 3.55 cents a minute to do it!" shrieks Makin.

"The records at my office," begins Carter, with titantic politeness, "suggest a significant disconnect between Dr Deane's statements here and those expressed in correspondence."

"Are you calling me a liar?" shouts Deane, lunging across the table and punching the American in the face. No, he didn't. I made that up. Deane actually goes into a flurry of body language and suggests that "going back over history is slightly futile."

"But what this comes down to is your preferred option involves you charging 3.55 cents a minute," reiterates Makin. "That sounds like Baumol-Willig to me!"

The crowd chortles. It's amazing what gets a laugh these days.

"It's a good deal if you can get it, though!" chirps Williamson.

By now the crowd is in hysterics.

"We seem to have identified the issues," smirks Fraser. "I wonder if you four could sort it out between you before I move on ..."

People are beginning to pass out from laughing. Time to move to something which is assuredly not funny. ISDN pricing. Deane maintains the pricing must be alright because installations are up 160%.

"160% of what?" shoots Williamson.

Next up is bundling of products and services. This is really not funny. It is so unfunny that Clear is planning court action against what Deane refers to as "normal discounts".

"And the Court of Appeal's recent decision," spits Makin, "suggests you might have some trouble."

On the issue of bandwidth for schools, Deane lauds his company's offer of "free" lines (the kind you have to pay to use) to schools, "to promote more vigorously amongst young people telecommunications products and services." The very soul of charity!

"That wasn't a very long and developed answer," ventures Fraser. Hey, it at least it was honest. Deane tells the story of his conversation with Telstra CEO Frank Blount on the topic of Telstra's $4 billion investment in cable. Why, he says, his face white with shock, Telstra actually might not recoup its investment straight away, "and we don't have $4 billion in taxpayers' money to splash around."

"It hasn't been taxpayers' money for years," hisses Williamson--then gets stuck with the Telstra cellular question for his troubles. He draws a deep breath.

"For your Christmas present ... you'll have a Telstra mobile phone."

"You'll note he hasn't said which Christmas!" quips Makin.

Makin also answers Fraser's concluding question--on whether any of the telcos have "strategic alliances".

"Well," he begins."It is always true that my enemy's enemy is my friend. So we do share something--even if it is a feeling of oppression at two in the morning ..."

"I'm appalled that we have to share in your personal tragedies," says Fraser, before turning to Carter. Larry, is there anything you'd like to share with us?

"No."

"A man with clean hands?" suggests Fraser.

No, a man with decent shoes. As the four combatants restlessly kick their heels, it becomes clear that both Deane and Makin are wearing slip-ons. Horrible ones. Forget bandwidth, bundling and portability. Here is a clear case for government intervention. If we can't have competition in the local loop, we must surely, at least demand fashion sense from our CEOs. Where's Maurice when you need him?

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