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Neelie gone now, as the telcos’ favourite European commissioner gets in a final word

Neelie Kroes EC 2

© EC

It would be safe to say that Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, is not the biggest chum of the CEOs of the region’s telecoms operators. The forthright and outspoken commissioner is never afraid to speak her mind on telecoms matters, and not adverse to a little spin when needed to make out that things always go her way.

Personally, I find it rather refreshing, and you are guaranteed a juicy soundbite or two whenever she makes a speech – which is rather often. But then I’m not a telco CEO having to fight my corner with the powerful European Commission.

Yesterday, Ms Kroes gave one of her final speeches, at the FT ETNO Summit in Brussels. She was, as usual, on form and full of memorable lines. We’re going to produce a retrospective later, once she has officially finished her term in office and been replaced by Günther Oettinger, Andrus Ansip, and Jyrki Katainen (yes, it takes three men to replace her, go figure), where we will take a critical look at what exactly has been achieved.

Until then, it is well worth considering her latest remarks.

She started by spearing her audience with a trademark comment when she said, “Sometimes I think the telecoms sector is its own worst enemy”. That woke them up, and allayed any thoughts that she might be more conciliatory as she reaches the end of her term.

She warned that the future market won't be characterised by protectionism, “It won't feature players stuck in gilded national cages. It won't mean looking backwards to old business models and dated revenue streams. No, no, no. It needs a strong sector. A sector that is diverse and dynamic. Able to explore new services and new business models. With operators working across borders: large, strong pan-European players alongside smaller niche players.”

Here’s what I would do, if I were you

The telcos want changes to regulation, but Kroes wants them to change too. She remains uncertain as to whether telcos will lead the “digital future” or be dragged along behind, “against your will, resisting until the last”. To help them with their strategic decisions in this matter, she kindly offered her own opinions. “Here's what I would do if I were you,” she said, no doubt raising hackles throughout the room.

Of course, Neelie being Neelie, she wrapped up her suggestions in much opinion and digression, but this is what we think she would do, if she were running a telco:

  • Stop talking about deregulation as a code-word for keeping protected national markets
  • Talk about something other than mobile consolidation – boring
  • Help create a single market for telecoms
  • Stop blaming the OTT players for everything, as they are the ones driving digital demand
  • Keep pestering for better cyber security rules; the EC needs to up its game
  • Stop arguing for deregulation; there is insufficient competition to make ex ante rules redundant
  • On net neutrality, telcos can’t ask for payment twice, so get over it
  • Don’t force customers to subsidise specialised services they do not use, as a way of paying for network investment.

“Today's European market is fragmented, ring-fenced, and subscale,” said Ms Kroes. “My dream is to change that. To see equally open and unified markets on both sides of the Atlantic. This is a project that will continue under the next mandate; as Jean-Claude Juncker has made clear. A project that can ensure our digital future, where a strong telecoms sector supports every European.”

And with that reminder of her vision, which she would dearly liked to be shared by the telecoms operators, she departed the stage.

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