Home Mobiles ACCC's Rod Sims unmoved by TPG mobile call – The Australian Financial Review

ACCC's Rod Sims unmoved by TPG mobile call – The Australian Financial Review

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"Our preliminary view is that TPG is currently on track to become the fourth mobile network operator in Australia and, as such, it's likely to be an aggressive competitor," Sims said at the time.

"We therefore have preliminary concerns that removing TPG as a new independent competitor … would be likely to result in a substantial lessening of competition."

No more mobile network, no more problems, right?

This changes nothing

Teoh was adamant on Tuesday that the end of TPG's mobile dream has been driven by factors out of its control.

"We have made this decision independently," Teoh told Chanticleer. "The ACCC's considerations are not relevant.

"We can't keep on expecting our shareholders to keep investing in something that isn't good for the company."

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But whatever the reason for the announcement, Sims wasn't going to let it pass.

He wouldn't comment on whether the TPG announcement was designed to put pressure on the ACCC, but said that while changes to a merger party's strategy regularly get made during an ACCC assessment process, such shifts would be "rigorously tested against a company's internal discussions both before and during the merger process".

The ACCC is due to deliver its final decision in March. Fairfax Media

In other words, this changes nothing.

"There's always the issue of how does the market evolve – this isn't a static market, this is an emerging, potentially converging market," Sims told Chanticleer.

The ACCC's job is to use its best judgment to examine how the market might develop with or without the merger, and examine whether there is a substantial lessening of competition.

Indeed, Sims would know only too well that TPG would likely have to go back to the drawing board and build a mobile network if the merger was blocked, given the damage the NBN is doing to TPG's traditional fixed-line business.

Teoh conceded as much on Tuesday, admitting the company had talked to alternative vendors about building out a new network that could be upgraded to 5G.

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"We are in a very difficult position. We spent a lot of time and resources trying to design a very good network. And we have a very good design," he said.

"We have to review what we have done. There are so many moving parts."

Asked whether he felt disappointed that his company had been caught up in a global trade war, Teoh said the company simply had no room to move. Even upgrading the Huawei 4G network using 5G equipment from another manufacturer wasn't an option.

"It's quite disappointing but this is the law and we have to abide by the law."

Of course, none of this high-stakes back and forth means the ACCC is certain to block the deal anyway.

While Sims might have painted TPG as a fourth mobile network operator in competition with Telstra, Optus and Vodafone, in reality this was always going to be a very niche play.

The $600 million, data-only network was being built to service Australia's CBD and selected inner-city suburbs. While the offering would have been dirt cheap – free for the first six months, and less than $10 a month after that – it was so limited that it became the subject of some not-so-gentle ribbing in the telco industry for being the mobile network without voice.

World of pain

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Whatever TPG's network was – and many saw it as a way for TPG to better compete with the NBN – it wasn't ever going to be a strong, full-service national network on the scale of those run by Telstra, Optus and Vodafone.

Would taking out an arguably insubstantial network constitute a substantial lessening of competition?

Maybe not. But Sims is fond of quoting a line he attributes to former Telstra chief David Thodey, who said that "whenever you've got three players you get rational prices; whenever it goes to four you get pricing that can damage shareholder value".

It appears the market would agree with this sentiment. The share price of Thodey's old shop, Telstra, leapt 7.8 per cent on Tuesday.

TPG's shares rose 3 per cent on Tuesday, to $7.22, although they have fallen 29 per cent since the merger was announced on August 30.

If there's one thing that's certain after TPG's mobile decision, it's that all of Teoh's eggs are in the merger basket.

Teoh's bill for the network's equipment so far was $130 million, with 900 small cell sites established in part or full.

That cash is dusted. But if the merger goes through, at least TPG will be able to find some use for these assets, plus the 5G spectrum it bought at auction in December for $262.3 million in a joint venture with Vodafone.

But if the merger gets blocked, TPG is in a world of pain, with its fixed-line business being overrun by the NBN, and its 4G network rendered next door to useless by a politically poor choice of equipment provider.

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