Last week’s approval by the European Commission of the acquisition of e-Plus by Telefonica Deutschland (O2) became possible through concessions at wholesale level. Telefonica committed “to enter into capacity based wholesale agreements with one or several (up to three) Upfront Mobile Bitstream Access MVNOs (“Upfront MBA MVNOs”) in Germany prior to the closing of the merger.” This broadly follows the capacity based MVNO deal offered by Hutchison in Ireland to gain approval for its takeover of O2 Ireland.
Germany already has a vibrant MVNO market, not least as a result of the e-Plus multi-brand wholesale strategy. In regards to the wholesale markets, the Commission is satisfied that these MVNOs will not be harmed by reduced competition at network level. The existence of competitive MVNOs also acts as an insurance against unwarranted retail price hikes and hence alleviates the Commission’s concerns in the retail market.
The merger will take costs out of the mobile industry in Germany so shareholders will benefit. Telefonica Deutschland further committed to “make the following offers: (a) a spectrum offer consisting of the lease of 2×10 MHz in the 2.1 GHz band and of 2×10 MHz in the 2.6 GHz band; (b) a national roaming offer; (c) a divestiture of sites offer; (d) a passive radio network sharing offer; and (e) a sale of shops offer.” An Upfront MBA MVNOs might buy some spectrum. However, the Mobile Bitstream Access effectively provides access to capacity. There is little point in owning spectrum; indeed such a limited spectrum holding would make little sense without immediately entering into a spectrum sharing agreement with Telefónica Deutschland. There is little differences between this and the MBA MVNO arrangement.
Passive infrastructure sharing had been a feature of the German market for some time. Perhaps Vodafone Germany and T-Mobile will also look to increase the sharing of network resources, active and passive with each other and also with the merged Telefonica Deutschland and e-plus. Are we seeing the first steps of an evolution towards a national neutral host network with regulated wholesale prices?
With return of capital employed in the European mobile industry below that of some regulated utilities such as water and gas, investors may be better off by effectively pulling capital out of the mobile industry by means of outright consolidation or through sharing networks including spectrum, i.e. a “merger lite” strategy, becoming regulated utilities.
Noteworthy is that e-Plus was one of the four operators bidding for the 2x30MHz of digital dividend 800MHz spectrum in Germany which did not obtain any block. The outcome of the spectrum auction is likely to have been a factor in KPN’s decision to put e-Plus up for sale. In the next German spectrum auction only three operators will compete for spectrum, probably resulting in auction prices close to reserve prices. This is another reason for investors to be cheerful about the trend towards consolidation in the European mobile industry.
By Stefan Zehle, CEO, Coleago Consulting