Saviour Sol preaches his mobile makeover
By Geoff Elliott in San
The Australian (WSJ)
Saturday, May 23, 2009
Sol Trujillo was back among friends in
San Diego this week and doing what he
seems to do best -- selling himself.
Having slipped out of Australia
a little over a week ago ahead of his June 30 resignation date, Trujillo is on the
executive circuit hustings. He was making his pitch at the
annual Future in Review conference, one of the planet's leading
technology forums where over the years
has been a regular attendee.
Life as a CEO was about making bets, he proclaimed to an
audience of more than 200 delegates -- a group of heavyweights
of the tech and telco game, like Mark Hurd, chairman and chief
executive officer of computer giant Hewlett-Packard.
that his bets at Telstra had paid off. Telstra's Next G
mobile network was the envy of the world; the fastest
thing on the planet.
It not only "fundamentally changed how the company operated but
I would argue changed
Trujillo, as Communications Minister Stephen Conroy acknowledged
this week, deserves plenty of credit for the Next G rollout and,
it must be said, the modernisation of Telstra's core networks.
Financially, Next G has been a big winner for Telstra.
But Australians have a healthy scepticism for an extravagant
sales pitch and Trujillo's presentation, including his claims that
Telstra's mobile network was running at 21 megabits per second,
was 30 minutes of hyperbole that in itself said much about why a
man like Trujillo was always going to find it difficult
to fit in with Australian culture.
US telecommunication and
technology CEOs are never short of ego and on that score Trujillo is clearly one of the kings.
"One of the bets we made at Telstra was that (the mobile device)
would become something you use for virtually everything," Trujillo said.
"people are not only making voice calls, not only texting but
they are making video calls". But
didn't stop there. "They are delivering healthcare.
Educational field trips are being taken by children who live in
the interior of the country or the bush and going to the
Great Barrier Reef and literally seeing all the
marine life, everything that they can without having to get on a
bus or an aeroplane or whatever to get there."
For a reporter who covered the dotcom boom and bust, the irony
of Trujillo's rhetorical extravagance was not that it was
pointing to the future, rather it just sounded like a warmed
over speech from a telco executive in the year 2000 looking to
keep air in the dotcom bubble.
Even in the evangelical-like cauldron of true believers in the
all things tech that conferences like Future in Review tend to
attract, this was rich.
In fact, to the credit of conference founder Mark Anderson,
panellists and chief executives are tested at the forum and more
than a few delegates raised their eyebrows over
Kamran Elahian is the chairman and co-founder of a
Silicon Valley venture capital firm and has helped
launch more than 10 tech companies. He got to his feet at
the end of Trujillo's presentation.
"I have a fundamental question about what you've been saying,"
Elahian began. "I have not seen, either in the US or Europe,
seven megabits a second service on my mobile.
"To be honest, I still have trouble living in
Silicon Valley having a continuous phone call going
from my office to my home," he added, at which point delegates
erupted into knowing laughter and gave him a round of applause.
"I'm just curious how is it that you are talking about 21
megabits a second; are you talking about per user or per
cell?" he asked, the cell being a transmission point in the
Elahian said that to run at 21Mbps continuously there would need
to be a massive backhaul network of fibre. "That is a
pretty significant expense, knowing how big
is -- that would cost a gazillion dollars, not just a billion
dollars, so did you get a government bailout or something?
"It just doesn't sound (as if) what you're saying matches the
claims that even Qualcomm are claiming," he said, referring to a
San Diego-based wireless technology company.
"That's a great question," said
Trujillo, who quickly climbed down from
his claims and said the 21Mbps was the best-case scenario on the
network and that the average was considerably lower than that.
But Elahian's reference to a government bailout was an astute
observation that drives home an emerging theme about Australia's telecommunication policy
and Telstra's role.
The Rudd Government's national broadband network as a
taxpayer-backed, nation-building project rescues a failed
industry structure and helps starts a new one in the ashes.
The fibre-optic network plan is the gazillion-dollar gorilla
that Elahian was talking about, to support not only massive and
instant data transfer of files to a customer's computer at the
home, but also the kind of futuristic mobile wireless services
that the industry has been predicting for years. Australia is
getting at least a taste of it with Telstra's Next G network.
was having none of the national-building talk. As a
historic monopoly with control over the wholesale network, using
the old copper wires that San Diego internet pioneer
Larry Smarr says technology can only ramp up so far and has
reached the end of its days, the new network has always been the
threat to its business.
Telstra will be forced to compete as a retail company, only on
more of an even footing with others.
could barely conceal his scorn for the Rudd broadband plan,
telling The Weekend Australian: "I'll comment in four or
five years -- let's see if it ever happens. We'll draw a
conclusion if it happens."
He also spent time at the conference railing against government
"I can give you thousands of examples in our industry around the
world, because I have worked around the world, where governments
have built, owned and controlled things and that is generally
where you don't see innovation," he said.
Never mind government's historic role in telecommunications and
more specifically the internet, which Smarr pointedly reminded
Trujillo was created by the US government after Trujillo cited
the web as an example of the free market.
allowed, the government can be a catalyst, which to many
Australians in the audience appeared to be exactly the argument
"Sol is just sore because the federal Government eventually saw
through his 2005 FTTN (fibre to the node) strategy that he
designed to re-create the historic fixed-line Telstra monopoly,"
said Simon Hackett after Trujillo's presentation.
Hackett is the chief executive and founder of Adelaide-based
internet company Internode. He said the Government's
announcement was designed to permanently bust Telstra's
The global financial crisis, he said, had given the Rudd
Government licence to be bold and Telstra's own "naked
aggression toward both government and market shown over the last
four years has ultimately empowered the Government to act in the
way that it has".
Chris Hancock, chairman of the Internet Industry Association and
chief executive of the university-wide internet network AARNET,
said the costs of the new, $43 billion network were nothing
considering the benefits to Australian society.
"The intangibles are the key -- social inclusion, regional
engagement, democratic participation, environmental regulation
and access to health -- I defy anyone to argue the cost issues
against the delivery of these services for our future," he said.
"Let's not lament a potential cost issues over the future and
the future of our children -- avoidance on this issue now will
see us step back 50 years."
Hancock said at the tech conference in San
and its digital economy strategy had put the country on the map.
For his part, Trujillo
kept his distance from the other Australians present.
Asked what he was going to do next, he said: "I don't
It seemed to be a hint of the humility that, had he used it
while he was in Australia, might
have served him and Telstra shareholders a little better.