Optus CEO Paul O’Sullivan is frustrated by the political debate and media coverage of the National Broadband Network. The telecommunications industry faces a “critical period”, he says, but the discussion is now little more than a polarised argument about whether we do or don’t build the NBN.

“It’s been shrunk because it’s now appearing in early general news,” O’Sullivan told the Kickstart Forum yesterday, an annual get-together of technology journalists, vendors and their PR minions. That is, the NBN is up the front of newspapers. “It is now being written about as a political debate, and many of the issues that Australians need to hear about and discuss are not being put out in front of them.”

Those issues, according to O’Sullivan, are the “very fundamental point that competition really matters”; that we need a much greater level of transparency in the deals being cut by NBN Co; “a proper discussion publicly about the new monopoly being created in NBN Co”; and that NBN Co’s monopoly in the physical access layer should not be allowed to become a monopoly in the production and delivery of content and applications.

“The NBN is almost certainly going to be built. We can see that in the way the government are rolling out now,” he said.

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“Today I’m again publicly calling for all Australians to see the full terms of any deal being done by the government and NBN Co with Telstra. There’s an amount of $11 billion dollars supposed to be paid to Telstra… Of particular concern is that these payments to Telstra will greatly distort the market in its early phases, and allow Telstra to buy market share as customers are migrated from the old infrastructure to NBN.”

O’Sullivan proposed that management of the NBN be put out to competitive tender every few years, perhaps with one contract for the operational management of the data network and separate contracts for the management of cable rollout and the installation of customer premises equipment on a regional or state-by-state basis. He compared this structure with the way Australian mobile telcos and British regional broadcasters compete for spectrum every few years.

He also proposed the creation of an autonomous oversight body, comparing it to the independent Reserve Bank.

While admitting that he had no answers, O’Sullivan called for a “strong discussion” of how we might prevent monopolisation of content and applications.

“This makes sure that the guy with the biggest money can’t guarantee dominance in the new world by locking up content,” he said. “We’ve spent 15 years fighting to establish an open environment in the physical access layer. We’d better all be vigilant to make sure that we don’t win that battle only to lose it at the content and application layer.”

Answering questions from journalists, O’Sullivan hosed down speculation that new wireless technologies would kill the NBN, or that the NBN’s capacity would never be used.

“Mobile and wireless networks are really the extension of a fibre network or a microwave network where we’re then doing the last mile using wireless technology,” he said. “The physics of mobile networks are such that we are never going to be able to carry the same capacity, the same speed, simultaneously on wireless for the foreseeable future as we can on fibre.”

More important, he said, was the question of how you create a seamless experience for users as they move from fixed to wireless connectivity and back again.

Around 10 years ago O’Sullivan was involved in creating traffic growth projections for the Southern Cross cable, one of the key undersea fibre links connecting Australia with the US. Even his most optimistic 10-year estimates of traffic growth were exceeded in just three years, he said.

You can hear Paul O’Sullivan’s entire speech and discussion session in my poor-quality reference recording.

*Stilgherrian is attending Kickstart Forum as a guest of the organisers, Media Connect