What’s up with… Vantage Towers, Vodafone & Three, fair share debate

Christian Hillabrant, the incoming CEO at Vantage Towers.

Christian Hillabrant, the incoming CEO at Vantage Towers.

  • Vantage Towers names a new CEO
  • Vodafone UK and Three get even closer to their marriage vows
  • Breton lights another fire under Europe’s fair share debate

In today’s industry news roundup: Former Ericsson executive to take the helm at Vantage Towers; Vodafone UK and Three are ever closer to sharing the details of their planned merger; European commissioner Thierry Breton adds the regional fear factor to the fair share debate; and more!! 

European neutral infrastructure giant Vantage Towers, which is majority owned by Oak Holdings (a joint venture of Vodafone, Global Infrastructure Partners and KKR), has appointed Christian Hillabrant (pictured above) as its new CEO, with effect from about two months’ time. Hillabrant is currently chief operating officer at US towers specialist Tillman Infrastructure, and has previously held senior roles at Ericsson (COO for Europe and North America) and at T-Mobile USA. Until Hillabrant takes over, Thomas Reisten will continue as the interim CEO as well as being CFO: Reisten took on the CEO role last month from Vivek Badrinath, who announced his intention to step down earlier this year. Hillabrant will join a company that has more than €1bn in annual revenues, more than 46,000 wholly-owned macro tower sites, plus another 37,000 through joint investments, spans 10 European countries, and faces a regulatory probe in Germany, where it has been accused of industrial sabotage by 1&1, a prospective competitor to Vodafone Germany. 

You may have heard this one before, but... It seems Vodafone UK and Three are just days away from sharing the details of their planned merger. According to Reuters, the document that details exactly how they plan to combine their businesses could be revealed as soon as this Friday (9 June), or early next week, as the two companies are in the final phase of agreeing the details. The two operators formally announced their plan to merge in October 2022, when Vodafone UK stated it would own 51% of the combined entity, while Hutchison would hold the remaining 49% stake, with no cash changing hands in the move. Figures from October last year suggest the merger would create the biggest telco in the UK market in terms of retail mobile customers (27.1 million in total) – see Vodafone and Three UK go public about their marriage plans. The combined telco is expected to be worth around £15bn, according to Reuters. In April, media speculation suggested the two companies had held “positive” meetings with senior UK government officials and were seeking political support for the deal. But this is far from the final step for Vodafone UK and Three, as there are plenty in the financial, regulatory and telecom sector who believe the merger is unlikely to gain necessary regulatory approval from the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), according to a report from Proactive Investors. It cited comments from PP Foresight analyst Paolo Pescatore who stated that the deal “should not be approved under the current regulatory and market environments”, given that the planned merger of Three and O2 UK was previously rejected under the same regulatory environment. According to the analyst, the only way for the deal to happen will depend on whether the two companies can demonstrate such a move is in the genuine interests of the UK economy, productivity and consumers. Finally, he reportedly noted that while “a marriage of convenience makes sense”, it will take years before the fruits of the deal, such as lower costs and improved margins, might become a reality.

The European Commission’s industry chief, Thierry Breton, has reiterated his stance, yet again, on the ‘fair share’ debate, claiming that Europe is lagging behind other regions in terms of its digitalisation and that it needs to invest significantly in its telecoms network. He also defended the move to consider capex contributions from the big tech firms to Europe’s operators. Reuters cited Breton as saying that the market capitalisation of EU-based telcos “consistently” falls behind that of the US, while its 5G deployment pace is also slower than in other regions: He said that 95% of the population in the US is now covered by 5G, while this figure for the EU is significantly lower – standing at 72% of the population in the bloc – and that investment in 5G in Europe is also lower. According to the news agency, the commissioner also urged for investments in edge cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and network virtualisation and shrugged off concerns about how net-neutrality rules might be impacted if big tech players are forced to contribute financially towards buildouts of 5G and fibre – referred to as the ‘fair share’ debate, which was initiated by some of the largest European telcos – see 16 European telcos call on big tech to cough up capex cash. The conflict has left Europe polarised, with a report by Breton on the matter expected by the end of this month.

Still with the European Union… The bloc could impose a compulsory ban on member-states using equipment in their 5G networks that is supplied by companies deemed to pose security risks, such as Chinese vendor Huawei. The Financial Times (FT) broke the news, cited later by other media outlets, which suggested that the EU is considering such a move amid rising concerns about delayed actions from certain countries in the EU. In 2020, the bloc stated that member states can restrict or exclude risky suppliers of 5G kits, such as Huawei, from core parts of their telecoms’ networks. At the time, the EU did not go along with a reported push by US officials to impose a complete embargo on Chinese telecoms companies. According to the FT’s report, Commissioner Breton has previously stated that a third of countries in the EU had banned Huawei from being part of critical areas.

Japanese telco Rakuten Mobile has established a research and development hub to develop 5G and multi-access edge computing (MEC) use cases. Dubbed the “Rakuten Mobile Next-Generation Edge Computing Network Collaborative Research Center”, the facility was opened in partnership with National University Corporation Tokyo Institute of Technology and will conduct research on various applications of the technologies and explore their ability to create new customer value. Rakuten Mobile plans to apply the developed use cases to its existing services. Find out more from the telco’s statement (available in Japanese).

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) seems to be leading the battle against robocalls with a series of penalties. In its latest move, the regulator imposed a $5m fine on lobbyists John Burkman, Jacob Wohl and lobbying firm Burkman & Associates for making 1,141 unlawful robocalls in which they contacted potential voters with claims of personal information exposure risks if they voted by mail. At the end of 2022, the authority announced it planned to issue an auto warranty scam operation with a “record-breaking” fine of nearly $300m. The scheme, which is the largest robocall operation the FCC has ever investigated, is claimed to have been run by Roy Cox, Jr. and Michael Aaron Jones who have made billions of “apparently illegal robocalls” via their Sumco Panama company, as well as other domestic and foreign entities – see What’s up with… Bharti Airtel, Ribbon, FCC, AT&T, AST SpaceMobile. But the FCC is not alone in its battle against robocalls: In May 2023, attorneys general from 49 states reportedly filed a lawsuit against Avid Telecom, a company that had allegedly made more than 21 billion robocalls to US phone numbers, including 7.5 billion that are on the National Do Not Call Registry (a database maintained by the US government, listing the numbers of people who have requested that telemarketers do not contact them).

Cisco has been busy at its Cisco Live event in Las Vegas, with a big focus on cloud and security. It unveiled its vision for Cisco Networking Cloud, an “integrated management platform experience for both on-premises and cloud operating models, and its Cloud Native Application Security solution, called Panoptica, that is designed to “provide end-to-end lifecycle protection for cloud native application environments, from development to deployment to production”. It also launched a new Full-Stack Observability Platform, which it describes as “a vendor-agnostic solution that harnesses the power of the company’s full portfolio… [delivering] contextual, correlated, and predictive insights that allow customers to resolve issues more quickly and optimise experiences, while also minimising business risk”. And it revealed updates to its AI-driven Cisco Security Cloud thanks to investments in “innovations in artificial intelligence and machine learning that will empower security teams by simplifying operations and increasing efficacy.” 

- The staff, TelecomTV