Australian minister mistakenly reveals Telstra report

Communications minister Conroy erroneously publicises sensitive document

Australian Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has accidentally released a confidential report containing potentially damaging and embarrassing details about Telstra. Analysts say the leak could put Telstra on the back foot in negotiations around the upcoming A$43 billion National Broadband Network. And in a further gaffe, the most sensitive information in the 252-page document is highlighted in yellow. This was presumably to make it easier to censor the information but instead has allowed Telstra's competitors and detractors to skip to the juiciest details. Furthermore, many of the pages in the leaked report are labelled "confidential" and are meant only for individuals with "National Broadband Network probity clearance". "How on earth can Australian taxpayers trust this bloke to deliver a A$43 billion National Broadband Network?" Opposition communications spokesman Nick Minchin said. "This information goes to the heart of confidential negotiations and Senator Conroy has released terms of those negotiations in the public arena further jeopardising this entire process." A spokesman for Senator Conroy said the commercially sensitive information was "tabled by mistake and the Government regrets the error". The report, written by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and dated January 2009, is an assessment of proposals for building the next-generation broadband network. It contains highly detailed information about the value of Telstra's existing copper network assets (between A$8 billion and A$33 billion), extensive financial details including its cost of capital, network access prices and an analysis of funding uneconomic services in the bush. Telecommunications analyst Paul Budde said this information was critical to negotiations between Telstra and the Government over how large a share — if any — Telstra should have in the NBN and the amount of assets it needs to hand over to obtain that share. "This should not have happened. The Government should have been far more careful. It has breached trust and that's not a good thing," Budde said. "It could indirectly damage Telstra in its negotiating position ... it allows competitors to meddle in the whole discussion by commenting on this report and in that way undermining Telstra's position." But Budde noted that some of the confidential information revealed in the report was already known to industry figures, although not in such detail. Detailed appendix information about providing broadband services to commercially unviable areas would allow critics to test Telstra's public claims with the reality. "That particular appendix would give ammunition to people who have been arguing that there will be other ways to skin the cat if you don't leave it up to Telstra and give it to other players in the market," Budde said. Other appendixes in the report, such as one examining whether Telstra should be structurally separated to improve competition, could be used "to suss out how genuine Telstra is in its approach", Budde said. "Telstra was saying you don't have to structurally separate us to get the outcome you want, so this document could be used to say Telstra is right or wrong," he said. But if Telstra is upset about the Government's mistake, it is not showing it publicly. The telco refused to comment on the matter.

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