Optus regulatory chief quits


news The nation’s number two telco Optus has suffered a blow in the middle of ongoing talks with the competition regulator about the future of access to Telstra’s infrastructure over the next decade, with its director of government and corporate affairs Maha Krishnapillai announcing his departure.

For the past few years, it has often been Krishnapillai who has been the face of the telco’s regulatory war against Telstra, with the executive representing the SingTel subsidiary to the government, regulators and industry organisations as Labor’s flagship National Broadband Network has gotten off the ground. Krishnapillai has been with Optus for close to four years, after joining the telco from a similar role as group executive for strategy at fellow telco Macquarie Telecom, where he spent more than a decade. His departure was first reported in this morning’s issue of industry newsletter Communications Day.

“I am writing to advise that Maha Krishnapillai, Director of Government and Corporate Affairs has announced he will be leaving Optus,” confirmed Optus general manager of government and corporate affairs Clare Gill, in a statement this morning. Gill will act in Krishnapillai’s role while a replacement is sought.

“While Maha advises leaving Optus was a difficult choice to make, he has decided to leave Optus at the end of this month due to family commitments,” Gill said. “Optus would like to thank Maha for his contribution to the company over the past three and a half years and wishes him all the best for his new endeavours.”

“I’m sure you will agree that Maha has been an accessible and valued spokesperson for the company. He has been an outstanding advocate for competition in the telecommunications market not only in his leadership role at Optus but in his previous careers. He has represented Optus at a time of major industry reform and ensured that Optus’ position as a champion for competition and consumers is not lost in the complexity of the debate.”

Communications Day reported Krishnapillai had left Optus for personal reasons, as he wished to shift into a role that would not require him to regularly commute from his home and family in Melbourne. The newsletter reported the executive had already lined up his next role — but it wouldn’t be with one of Optus’ competitors. The executive’s last day at Optus will be 30 November.

Krishnapillai’s departure has kind of come out of the blue, and obviously as it’s occurring for personal reasons, it’s tough to read anything further into it.

However, I will note that in my personal opinion, his departure does go some way towards suggesting that the next move for Optus chief executive Paul O’Sullivan — which I have long predicted, but which hasn’t yet come to pass — may be getting closer. In the middle of this decade, O’Sullivan was far more active on the regulatory front than he has been over the past several years. Since Krishnapillai’s appointment, O’Sullivan has relied on the executive regularly to represent Optus whenever high-profile stoushes with Telstra, the government or other parties have come up.

I haven’t seen Krishnapillai give many speeches, but it’s a regular event for O’Sullivan to call on the executive as his right-hand man at financial results briefings and other similar events. And the executive’s role as a director of Optus’ Victorian arm also signals he has been more than just Optus’ regulatory chief to O’Sullivan. In fact, he has been much more highly visible in public than any of the Optus CEO’s other lieutenants.

Krisnapillai signalled to CommsDay that Optus will be taking “a more tempered” approach to public debate in future — partly because Telstra’s approach these days is more measured. However, that won’t wash for long if the Coalition wins Government in the next Federal Election. At that stage the industry debate over broadband will be completely rebooted, and Optus will need to take a very strong role in it once again, to protect its own interests, if nothing else.

I can’t see O’Sullivan being keen to get strongly involved personally in yet another national debate about the future of telecommunications in Australia. He’ll need a wise and energetic player to replace Krishnapillai and keep Optus’ interests at the discussion’s forefront.

On a personal note, I like Krisnapillai and have known him going back to his Macquarie Telecom days. We’ve had a few enjoyable tussles over the years.

However, I don’t really agree with most of his views about the future of the industry, and I feel that in general he represents a class of executive within Optus that is too focused on Optus itself and less focused on customer wants and needs. The fact that Optus has let iiNet, TPG and Internode eat its lunch in the fixed-line broadband market over the past few years (choosing to focus heavily on mobile instead) is a prime example of this problem.

Optus’ current management team is structured generally as a force of conservatism. However, the time for conservatism is past. We are now in a dramatic time of change, and fast-moving executives and companies will take advantage of that. It will be interesting to see how Optus’ approach to the wider industry changes over the next little while.