Poor old Stephen Conroy, Australia’s Communications Minister, can’t seem to take a trick.  He was lumbered with the arguably the toughest portfolio in the land and one mismanaged by the previous administration that succumbed to constant bullying from the national carrier.

Everything he does comes under intense scrutiny by the press and a vocal opposition shadow minister, Senator Nick Minchin.  Just when you think the hounds have actually caught him, Conroy manages to pull another rabbit out of his hat that stuns all the critics.  This time it’s the appointment of the highly respected Mike Quigley as executive chairman of the company set up to deliver the National Broadband Network (NBNCo).

It was no understatement in the announcement that Quigley was “an Australian executive who has reached the top of their profession globally, and is now able to bring the benefit of that experience home.”  This is the man that reached the rank of President and COO at Alcatel and was slated to succeed retiring CEO, Serge Tchuruk, prior to the merger with Lucent, the post eventually going to Lucent CEO, Pat Russo. When Telstra was looking for a replacement for Ziggy Switkowski (Sol Trujillo’s predecessor), Quigley was purportedly approached with the chance to return to Australia in style. But he had the CEO job at Alcatel in his sights and turned down the approach.  One can only imagine what might have been had he accepted the offer?

Quigley was heavily favoured, once again, to take the reins of Alcatel-Lucent in September 2008 but missed out again after the demise of Russo and the subsequent appointment of former BT boss, Ben Verwaayan.  In the interim, Quigley chose the role of President, Science and Technology and Strategy, rather than COO of the merged company where he could “devote his attention to assuring that strategic investments align with evolving market opportunities,” Alcatel said in a statement. But several months later, despite some rumours that he would be going NXTcomm, he left and returned to Australia in August 2007 citing ‘personal reasons’.

Others believed Quigley was deliberately lying low while Alcatel-Lucent sorted out its post-merger issues, including the culling of at least twelve thousand staff. Once Russo had ridden out the storm, sources in the financial community were predicting Quigley could make a triumphant return as the head of a slimmer, more powerful company, reigning back operating expenses, and battling with other growing pains. It appears that would have been welcomed within at least the former Alcatel part of the new vendor.  Quigley, it seems, had a fiercely loyal following within Alcatel, but it was not to be.

Quigley reappeared earlier this year as a director of a National ICT Australia (NICTA) spin-off, Audinate, a company specialising in audio delivery from the perspective of deep networking expertise.  His interest in broadband expansion in Australia dates back a number of years.  In February, 2007 he appeared on ABC’s 7.30 Report stating that, “In the end, if the infrastructure isn’t built, there is not much to regulate. So, for example, the FCC in the US decided that they could go ahead and allow the investment to be made in the broadband fibre infrastructure, without necessarily asking the incumbents who had the wherewithal to build these networks to unbundle it.” He went on to debunk Telstra’s later stance under Sol Trujillo by saying that’, “while wireless has an important part to play in mobility and portability, it won’t be able to provide the tens of megabits per subscriber or per consumer that are going to be needed in the future.”

In announcing his appointment to the NBNCo, the Gvernment said that “during the course of his career, Mr Quigley has led the development and integration of large scale FTTP and FTTN implementations for some of the largest US carriers. He has had to make the difficult decisions. During his career, Mike has managed the acquisition of numerous technology assets and knows how to value such assets from both a technical and financial perspective. He also has extensive experience in regulatory issues and telecommunications standards setting.”

And there lies the critical importance of his appointment and why it is such a clever move on behalf of the Government and Minister Conroy.  Quigley knows his stuff.  It would be difficult to find a better qualified and more technically savvy person for the role.  It will be very difficult for critics to argue with him on technical grounds and having worked with one of the world’s foremost vendors in the space for so many years, his inside knowledge and ability to negotiate will hold him in good stead come purchasing time.  Quigley is also wasting no time and will commence his role immediately by becoming actively involved in the NBN Implementation Study.  His chairmanship, however, is likely to be short-lived. The Government said it was continuing the process to appoint other directors and expected to make further announcements shortly. One of these is likely to become non-executive chairman with Quigley continuing as managing director and chief executive officer.

It will be interesting to see what other ‘rabbits’ Conroy can pull out in the coming months.  If they are half as good as Quigley and the politics is kept at bay then Australia’s NBN will be off to a ‘hopping’ start.