Mobile telecoms, where four is a crowd

They’re both trying to convince their respective regulators that, despite economic theory and direct evidence to the contrary, they intend to continue to fight the good fight and offer rock-bottom prices AFTER their mobile markets are reduced to just three players.

Son this week promised, in a TV interview in the US, a massive price war if regulators would let him take over T-Mobile. Folding in T-Mobile, he claimed, would give him the scale to compete properly with the other two US biggies, AT&T and Verizon, and inject some real competition into the US market which currently suffers from low average mobile data speeds, still patchy coverage (especially from Sprint itself) and high prices, he said.

This is a risky line to take in the US, where many observers are convinced that - despite plenty of evidence to the contrary - the US is now the leading mobile nation. Even Neelie Kroes, the EU information commissioner, thinks it is. It may be in terms of infrastructure investment, because it’s still catching up with its peers; and it probably is on profitability, since the two dominant players have done an excellent job of keeping prices high, but on the measures that matter to actual users (especially mobile broadband pricing) it is still well behind the best countries in Europe.

As a result there was an outraged backlash against the tenor of Son’s observations - he tends to articulate his thoughts in a straight-forward, down-to-earth manner.

To push a few more regulatory buttons, Son also indicated that he is seriously looking at providing fixed broadband equivalent services to compete with the cable companies, given the capacity a T-Mobile merger would bring him.

But the “let me take over my competitors and I’ll be more competitive” is a difficult line to take to a regulator, no matter what your track record. All the evidence - and much common sense - points to a reduction in players leading to a reduction in competition over the medium to longer term. No doubt Son’s plan, if flagged through, will precipitate a price war initially, but once the war is over and a combined Sprint/T-Mobile has built its market share against its two big rivals.. what then?

The most likely outcome is surely a cosy ‘business as usual’ with all three players having more to lose than gain by using price to compete for customers (if you have around a third of your market already, dropping prices by, say 10 per cent to try and win a 5 per cent market share increase doesn’t sound terribly sensible - in these circumstances prices tend to stay high and competition muted).

Meanwhile, over in France, Niel is on an even more tricky wicket but (being a Bond villian) feels that a bit of chutzpah and some outrageous patter will see him through.

Like Son, Niel maintains that an ownership reshuffle - with Bouygues buying SFR and selling most of its mobile network to Niel’s Iliad (parent of disruptor, Free) and thereby reducing the market to three national players, won’t mean a diminution in French competition. He maintains that owning the Bouygues network won’t change a thing and Free will remain just as price disruptive in a three-player market as it obviously was in a four-player market.

That’s certainly not the view of the other networks and the French government who have all been praising the proposed move as just the thing to reduce downward price pressure in the French mobile market.

And to dispel any doubt, the French stock market has already pushed up the share prices of all four mobile telecom participants even before the deal has been flagged through by the regulator. As we know, the market is seldom wrong.

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