Brussels ends competition probe into Europe's 'Big 5' telcos

Perhaps it was the rising chorus of complaint about regulatory interference (and no doubt the intense behind-the-scenes lobbying that went with it) that has stayed the EC's hand. For the past year you couldn't put a Big 5 CEO in front of a microphone without eliciting a stream of complaint about EU over-regulation, but whatever the reason the telecoms groups have been 'cleared' of antitrust practices by the European competition authority.

When the probe was launched about a year ago, the Brussels regulators were particularly exercised by meetings that were being held between the upper echelons of the ex-incumbent players - Telefonica, France Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, Telecom Italia - plus Vodafone. At the time we were told (off the record) that the big telcos (the E5 as they are sometime called) were getting together to form a bit of a united front to challenge the OTTs and to oppose the setting of ever-lowering termination and roaming charges, but that they always made sure they took their lawyers to take notes. It was serious stuff.

The Brussels competition watchdog also heard the same reports and announced it was launching a probe into these meetings and other activities which might be attenuating mobile competition in Europe.

It's now understood that the Commission was particularly worried about the ability of the Big 5 to influence technical standards in such a way that they could tie up the market.

The news, announced yesterday, is that the probe has been completed and the investigations will go no further. In particular, the Commission is satisfied that standards-setting in mobile has been adequately opened up and new stakeholders brought into the fold to prevent the process becoming an echo-chamber for Big 5 interests.

That may be so, but the European mobile market is still highly uneven in terms of pricing for citizens and it's very clear that where the big 5 dominate without a data challenger, that's where you find the highest prices and the slowest innovation. The danger now is that the regulators and the EC are listening to the E5 cries of distress, are pulling back on enabling greater competition in the European market, and instead are poised to allow a round of consolidation. That really would be a disaster for this market.

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