Euro-muddle over competition in Europe

Jul 26, 2013

Much noise recently from the European Commission - or rather from Neelie Kroes' office - about how the US has somehow magically 'pulled ahead' of Europe in telecoms. Europe is in the doldrums economically, we're told, and the US is now well ahead because it's rolled out more LTE networks. (it's arguably because it's so behind in fast fixed broadband that it's rolling out LTE so enthusiastically, but let's put that aside).

What IS true is that the US (in aggregate) is a more lucrative environment for telecom operators - or at least for the dominant operators. That's because Verizon and AT&T, along with the big cable groups, have essentially re-established the near-monopoly that existed in the US until the mid-1980s.

The upshot of that is that far from fostering a brilliant telecoms environment, they've established a high-priced and therefore profitable environment for themselves with user pricing for mobile and fixed broadband higher than nearly all of Europe, and exponentially higher than the best performers... that's worth reiterating. The best performing European environments so far outperform the US that you'd be best thinking of them on a different planet not just a different continent.

Here's Telco 2.0 getting the sums right as they would, rather than listening to the propaganda from the likes of AT&T and ETNO.

"In the international context, US mobile operators are pricey: the US is the fourth-highest OECD market by ARPU. On average, for instance, a triple-play package that bundles Internet, telephone and television sells for $160 a month with taxes. In France the equivalent costs just $38. For that low price the French also get long distance to 70 foreign countries, not merely one; worldwide television, not just domestic; and an Internet that’s 20 times faster uploading data and 10 times faster downloading it.

Please read the above paragraph again. Exactly, different planets!

The reason France has dramatically improved is simple - competition. And it's the same right across Europe: where competition is fierce - usually where there are more than 3 mobile telco players and a disrupted incumbent - services are cheaper and better. In the US the top 2 mobile carriers have 68 per cent of the market and are working on margins of over 30 per cent. Same on the fixed side - where unbundling is working well prices (as in the UK) are low. The US, of course, has high prices and very slow broadband

To argue, therefore, that the US has somehow pulled ahead of Europe in telecoms and has a model to be somehow emulated is simply ludicrous.

So what? Why the apparent anger?

Because Bendy Neelie Kroes, the EC information commissioner, is advancing the 'falling behind' thesis as part of her cunning strategy to build a single market for telecoms in Europe (with more power to the Commission and less power to the member state regulators). Kroes has apparently been convinced by the big telco lobbyists that less insistence on competition and a green light to consolidation will be conducive to telco infrastructure investment. This is highly doubtful, but she seems to have swallowed it and is acting accordingly with great political guile.

So don't be fooled by the recent huffing and puffing over roaming and net neutrality. Telcos already know that stupid money roaming will end thanks to pervasive smartphones and WiFi - it's just not sustainable. But they're doing Kroes a favour by squealing as she stamps her foot over the issue to make her look tough.

It's the same with net neutrality: lots of empty words about transparency and no throttling from Neelie (which the telcos aren't that bothered about anyway) while quietly handing over the gift that will just keep on giving - a dispensation for ISP/telcos from 'real' net neutrality by allowing them to charge upstream for differentiated services and to use caps and a cap dispensation to increase the draw.

The only bright spot here is that it's questionable whether telcos will be able to negotiate those upstream deals, and if they do, whether users will stand for it. There could be interesting times ahead.

Meanwhile, some of the cracks in the Commission's 'facing two-ways' telecoms policy are showing. Stefan Zehle, CEO, Coleago Consulting, says he's uncovered a massive contradiction with the European Commission’s recent single telecoms market announcements.

He says the section of the Commission dealing with competition appears to be out of step with the section that works on telecoms.

As part of the Commission’s approval process for Hutchison to acquire One Austria, says Stefan, Hutchison Austria entered into an agreement to publish a Reference Wholesale Access Offer and host up to sixteen MVNOs. However the data pricing was fixed at €0.002 per Mbyte as part of the agreement. So in order to prevent this low rate being 'abused' the European Commission created a clause which prohibited any of the MVNOs from offering services to anyone outside of Austria, thus contradicting its avowed aim to create a single telecoms market.

Expect more of this muddle as the commission simultaneously tries to push competition and consolidation... at the same time.

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