Cabled 2 You

TPG boss mystery man to appear in public for first time at Vodafone court case

TPG

The billionaire, who has never appeared in public, takes his appeal against the ACCC decision to court in Melbourne

Ben Butler

Wed 11 Sep 2019 04.00 AESTLast modified on Wed 11 Sep 2019 07.44 AEST

A woman walks past an ad for TPG
 David Teoh is due to break the habits of a lifetime by facing the cameras – and the court – to challenge the ACCC decision to stop a TPG-Vodafone merger. Photograph: Steven Saphore/Reuters

He’s worth $3bn, has never appeared in public and only one photograph of him has ever been seen by the public.

He is David Teoh, the TPG boss who is due to break the habits of a lifetime by facing the cameras – and the court – in Melbourne on Wednesday.

Teoh is to give evidence to the federal court as part of a challenge mounted by TPG and Vodafone against a decision by the competition regulator to stop the two telecommunications companies merging.

It is a case that involves national security, the tantalising possibility of cheaper mobile phone access and the 64-year-old Teoh’s ability to step back from day-to-day management of the business he has built over the past 27 years.

At stake, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, is the possibility of a fourth mobile phone network that would compete with the market’s dominant players, Telstra and Optus.

Vodafone already has its own, smaller network, and until recently TPG was planning to roll out one too.

But in August last year the federal government imposed what everyone involved in the case, except the ACCC, calls a “ban” on the use of technology built by Chinese company Huawei to build 5G mobile networks. (The ACCC prefers to call then communications minister Mitch Fifield’s instructions “security guidance”.)

On Tuesday the court heard that by late January TPG had decided the ban meant it could no longer go ahead with building its own mobile network – although contact between the company and another potential supplier, Ericsson, continued until July.

Through their lawyers, both TPG and Vodafone insisted it was now commercially and technically impossible for TPG to go it alone and build a viable rival network.

TPG’s counsel, Ruth Higgins SC, said radio spectrum that TPG splashed out $1.2bn on in 2017 as part of its plans to build the network was now an asset that was wasting away.

“They’ve depreciated in value and they’ve not generated any revenue,” she said.Advertisement

These are the issues Teoh will be asked to confront on Wednesday.

Asking the questions will be the man who, as counsel assisting last year’s banking royal commission, helped end the careers of NAB’s chief executive, Andrew Thorburn, and chairman, Ken Henry.

Onlookers will be hoping Teoh is more forthcoming than the Vodafone chief executive, Iñaki Berroeta.

Another ACCC lawyer, Catherine Button QC, had great difficulty drawing even the most basic information from him during evidence on Tuesday.

At one point, Button asked Berroeta whether Vodafone had a comparable amount of spectrum per customer in Sydney and Melbourne.

“Comparable? I don’t understand what comparable means,” Berroeta responded.

The case continues.

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