Posts Tagged ‘3G’

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Elimination of EU roaming charges implies a move towards regulated wholesale rates

April 11, 2014

On the 3rd of April 2014 the European Parliament voted (with some amendments) to adopt the Commission’s proposal to end roaming charges in the EU by the end of 2015. This was part of a wider vote in support of the Commission’s proposed regulation for a “Connected Continent”, the term used for the telecoms single market. The regulation must be approved by parliament and the European Council. With this, the Commission also moved a step closer to regulated wholesale prices and hence the structural separation of mobile networks into NetCos and RetailCos.

In essence the Commission wants EU consumers be able to use their mobile phone within all EU countries in the same manner as they would at home. “…Further reforms in the field of roaming should give users the confidence to stay connected when they travel in the Union without being subject to additional charges over and above the tariffs which they pay in the Member State where their contract was concluded.”

However, the problem with this is that most consumers chose domestic tariff plans with bundled minutes and data plans, so that within the bundle the incremental cost of usage for consumers is nil. Selling bundles also makes sense from a mobile operator’s perspective because most costs are fixed. In contrast, in a roaming situation an operator’s costs (the wholesale rate an operator has to pay to the visited network) are proportional to usage – i.e. variable. The Commission and the Parliament appear to be aware of this problem, and the adopted text states that operators “may, notwithstanding the abolition of retail roaming charges by 15 December 2015, apply a “fair use clause” to the consumption of regulated retail roaming services provided at the applicable domestic price level, by reference to fair use criteria. These criteria should be applied in such a way that consumers are in a position to confidently replicate the typical domestic consumption pattern associated with their respective domestic retail packages while periodically travelling within the Union.”

Much will depend on how the “fair use clause” is written. If we take at face value the text “consumers are in a position to confidently replicate the typical domestic consumption pattern associated with their respective domestic retail packages while periodically travelling within the Union”, this may mean that customers on large minute and data bundles can use these freely at any time across the EU. Alternatively the EU would have to define what “periodically travelling within the Union” means. Does it mean 30 days a year, or 180 days, or how much? Assuming the Commission does not want to place limits on how much Connected Continent consumers are allowed per year, there will be no time limits. Taken to an extreme, a mobile user could shop around for the cheapest SIM-only deal in Europe regardless of his or her country of residence. A prime example is EU parliamentarians who shuttle between their home country, Strasbourg, Luxembourg and Brussels.

The fair use provision is designed to address the problem that it is ultimately impossible to regulate retail prices without regulating wholesale prices. The Commission appears to be aware of the difficulty in defining “fair usage” and the implication for operators’ margins. The adopted text states: “In addition, the Commission should by 30 June 2015, in advance of that final abolition of retail surcharges, report on any necessary changes to the wholesale rates or wholesale market mechanisms, taking into account also mobile termination rates (MTR) applicable to roaming throughout the Union.” This is the real bombshell because it heralds EU regulation of wholesale prices.  In the same way as the EU has driven the regulation towards lower MTRs this may happen to wholesale prices.  The target might be a Reference Wholesale Access Offer, for example with the €0.002 per Mbyte of data rate imposed on Hutchison 3 Austria to allow their acquisition of Orange Austria to go ahead.

In regulating mobile tariffs, the EU is focusing only on roaming charges, whereas international call pricing is also highly unbalanced. In most cases international calls are not included in a mobile minute bundle and charged at a premium. This leads to oddities. For example, for a UK mobile subscriber with a bundled minute plan the incremental cost of a call to a UK mobile numbers is nil. Hence for a call to a UK number that is roaming in Poland, the marginal cost to the caller is nil and, according to the EU roaming charges cap, the called party pays no more than €0.07 per minute to receive the call. The marginal revenue to the UK operator is €0.07 per minute. However, if a UK mobile user calls a Polish mobile number the price paid is substantially higher. For example, Vodafone’s standard to Europe call price is £1 a minute (€1.20). In other words, Vodafone’s incremental revenue is 17 times higher, although costs are the same.

The Commission also proposed that for European fixed calls “operators will have to charge no more than a domestic long-distance call for all fixed line calls to other EU member states. Any extra costs have to be objectively justified.”  Will the same principle be applied to mobile operators? If yes, the scenario where a consumer buys a SIM in one country and uses it in another becomes practical. In this scenario, where within the EU distance and geography no longer matter for mobile retail prices, the retail activity of a mobile operator might evolve into what is in effect a pan-European MVNO with an “always best connected” value proposition, regardless of the access network used. Under these circumstances, who will then want to bid for spectrum and invest in networks?

Either way, we are moving to a situation where the EU mobile industry is subject to extensive price regulation. And yet, the EU Directorate General for Competition is totally focussed on preserving competition at network level and in-country consolidation of mobile operators is hard to achieve. This makes little sense. Now that the cost of calling has come down, perhaps Neelie Kroes can afford to make a call to Joaquín Almunia (Vice President of the European Commission responsible for Competition Policy) and attempt to sync policies.

Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO, Coleago Consulting

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How the Telefonica Deutschland / E-Plus merger could play out

April 9, 2014

This week it was reported that the European Commission and the German telecom regulator (Bundesnetzagentur) are applying pressure to Telefonica regarding their planned takeover of KPN’s subsidiary E-Plus in Germany.

We think on balance the deal will get approved but both parties will need to make significant concessions to get it done. This will be especially the case with regard to spectrum holdings and as we saw in Austria commitments to support virtual operators and branded resellers (i.e. wholesale access). There is always a chance that the concessions are so onerous that they may effectively destroy the deal.

The combined entity will have approximately a 39% mobile customer and 32% mobile service revenue market share in Germany, so the European competition authorities (and the German telecom regulator) will no doubt review it very carefully. Revenue market share figures would of course look much lower if the fixed and mobile markets were combined and no doubt KPN/E-Plus and Telefonica Deutschland will be arguing for this. They have a point, given the recent €7.7bn deal by Vodafone to acquire Kabel Deutschland and the fact that Deutsche Telekom sells fixed and mobile services effectively under one brand.

Regarding spectrum, the combined entity will on the face of it have a whopping 64% of the 1800MHz and 54% of the paired 2100 MHz bands, so it is likely that regulators will require a sale or handback of some of the holdings in these core bands.  In the less scarce 2600MHz band, it holds 42% of the spectrum. A similar situation was seen in the UK with regard to 1800MHz spectrum when EE was created from the merger of Orange and T-Mobile. It is possible that the other German operators will lobby to have “excess” spectrum handed back rather than sold so that the merged entity does not benefit. Some of the excess spectrum is due to for renewal in 2016 and the merger will reduce competition for these frequencies.

By contrast, in the very scarce and more valuable sub 1 GHz bands, it holds 33% of the 800MHz and 29% of the 900MHz spectrum, so there should be less of an issue here.

Clearly the deal is going to require significant concessions.  It makes sense for the competition authorities to scrutinise these deals to ensure that monopolies are not arising and customers have enough market choice.  Yet at the same time, telecom operators need to generate acceptable returns in a fiercely competitive and mature market. A difficult balancing act for the competition authorities.

By Scott McKenzie, Director, Coleago Consulting and former supervisory board member of E-Plus

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Wi-Fi offload won’t reduce the need for more mobile spectrum

February 5, 2014

During the Wi-Fi Offload Summit in Frankfurt on Jan. 23, a number of interesting developments in the Wi-Fi space were presented. A key question for mobile operators is whether Wi-Fi offload reduces the growth in mobile broadband (HSPA and LTE) traffic and thus the need for more mobile spectrum.

Research presented by Deutsche Telecom from tests in Hamburg and Rotterdam showed that when Wi-Fi is advertised and available free of charge in a particular area, this immediately generates substantial Wi-Fi traffic but does not reduce the volume of mobile data traffic. Towerstream Inc. presented conflicting evidence from its outdoor Wi-Fi offload network in New York.

From other findings presented, it is clear that both Wi-Fi and LTE traffic are increasing dramatically. Perhaps what is at work here is the Jevons paradox, which proposes that as technology progresses, the increase in efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource. The increasing availability of free Wi-Fi coupled with a rapid uptake of smartphones and cheap tablets would underpin this theory as one feeds off the other.

The growth in Wi-Fi is also driven by the desire of shops and malls to engage with shoppers on their in-store Wi-Fi networks. There is marketing value for retailers to have shoppers on their Wi-Fi network as soon as the shopper walks into the store. EE in the U.K. is turning this into a small business line, equipping supermarkets such as ASDA with a Wi-Fi infrastructure. Rather than identifying shoppers at the checkout when they swipe their loyalty card, ASDA hopes to be able to identify and engage with shoppers from the minute they are within the store’s Wi-Fi coverage. For example, coupons could be sent to a handset at the beginning of the shopping trip and can be used right away rather than languishing at the bottom of a shopping bag. This is just one of the many marketing benefits of free in-store Wi-Fi.

The simultaneous growth in Wi-Fi and LTE traffic may also be explained by the fact that Wi-Fi has other uses compared to cellular. The proliferation of TV Anywhere apps turns tablets and laptops into TV outlets, and in Canada, Bell has launched the first wireless TV proposition. TV over Wi-Fi creates a surge of Wi-Fi traffic in residential areas. Other devices in offices, public indoor spaces and outdoors rely increasingly on Wi-Fi connectivity because it is cheaper and more flexible than cable connections. This all takes Wi-Fi capacity in cities and raises the Wi-Fi noise floor.

In regard to the rapid adoption of tablets, all are Wi-Fi-enabled, but few are 3G (HSPA) or LTE-enabled. As people take these tablets out of their homes they will look for Wi-Fi access, thus increasing Wi-Fi hotspot usage. However, smartphones have a personal hotspot feature and where tablets are not in Wi-Fi coverage, we are seeing “cellular on-loading” from Wi-Fi devices.

Having paid for a shiny new LTE device, some customers would prefer to pay another €10-20 a month rather than having to faff about with logging onto Wi-Fi. Asking smartphone users to choose between LTE and Wi-Fi is the antithesis of a ubiquitous mobile broadband experience. However, Wi-Fi 2.0 with SIM-based authentication increases the ease of Wi-Fi access and may even be transparent to the user.

Another factor which determines the amount of LTE vs. Wi-Fi traffic are the policies for applications set in smartphones. For example, which bearer is allowed or preferred for which application. Some apps do not work via LTE; for example. FaceTime on the iPhone. In the U.S., the first version of the iPhone 5 with iOS 6 did allow FaceTime over LTE. This came as a bit of a shock to cellular operators as AT&T blocked FaceTime over cellular on most plans, but subsequently changed the policy. What cellular operators really want is to be able to set policies dynamically based on the app, the location, time of day and perhaps even the type of customer.

Nevertheless, most mobile operators have some Wi-Fi offload strategy. The focus is not so much on relieving congestion in busy areas but to deliver an “always best connected” value proposition. In short, LTE and Wi-Fi complement each other. The growth in Wi-Fi does not reduce the need for more cellular spectrum to serve the growth in mobile broadband traffic.

Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO Coleago Consulting

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Hong Kong’s hybrid approach to 3G spectrum renewal creates a “freerider” problem for the incumbents

December 19, 2013

Hong Kong’s Office of the Communications Authority (OFCA) has decided to adopt a hybrid approach to the renewal of incumbents’ 3G spectrum. OFCA will distribute two thirds of the spectrum to the incumbents through an administered allocation process and the remaining third will be put up for auction. The incumbents have the opportunity to reacquire the spectrum through the auction but it also opens up the opportunity for a new player (and many are speculating the China Mobile Hong Kong is the primary candidate) to acquire the spectrum.

When incumbents value spectrum one of the most significant sources of spectrum value attributed to spectrum in an auction is the ability to block new market entry. This “blocking value” can be very high for incumbents, especially in mature markets, as a new player seeking to win share to drive economies of scale often sparks a value destroying pricing or commission war – the experience of Three entering the UK market is a good case in point.

China Mobile may place a high strategic value on gaining access to 3G spectrum in Hong Kong and so the cost of blocking in the auction could be high. All the incumbents have an incentive to block new market entry. However, in an ideal world an incumbent would prefer “freeride” and rely on another incumbent to pay any premium for market entry. This creates a coordination problem for the incumbents and this risk is that they fail to “reach agreement” through their bidding strategies as to who will take the responsibility for blocking. The result may well be that new entry occurs despite all incumbents being heavily incentivised to avoid it.

Written by Graham Friend, Managing Director, Coleago Consulting

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The Data Tsunami is coming to East Africa

November 20, 2013

Coleago Consulting discusses regional investment, spectrum and infrastructure strategies at the TMT Finance & Investment East Africa 2013 Conference

This is a really critical time for the East Africa region. Significant decisions about the framework for investment, particularly regulation and spectrum allocation for 3G and 4G, will have a fantastic impact on regional growth.

There are a number of important spectrum auctions coming up across the region and operators are looking at how best to use spectrum, infrastructure sharing, new technologies and business models, to meet the massive demand for data services. The industry is now entering a transformational stage with unparalleled fixed-line and mobile consolidation.

Despite significant growth and achievements achieved over the past decade, major new investment, innovation and infrastructure roll out is needed for the next phase of development.

Highlighting the changing telecoms landscape in East Africa, next week (November 26th) sees the first TMT Finance & Investment East Africa 2013 Conference arrive in Nairobi.

In my first conference presentation of my new role here at Coleago, I will be making a keynote on “The Data Tsunami: Spectrum Allocation and Infrastructure Sharing” at the event, discussing the actions that regulators and operators are taking to cope with the global “data tsunami” that started building with 3G and is now accelerating with 4G. If you’re attending the event, or considering it, and would be interested in meeting, feel free to contact me – chris.buist@coleago.com

Written by Chris Buist, Director, Coleago Consulting

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Bidders in spectrum auction attach a high value to 1800MHz spectrum

October 25, 2013

The multi-band combinatorial spectrum auction (CCA) in Austria ended on the 21st of October, with bidders paying €2,014 million for 2x30MHz of 800MHz, 2x35MHz of 900MHz and 2x75MHz of 1800MHz spectrum. The 800MHz spectrum was new spectrum whereas the two other bands were renewals. The only bidders were the three incumbent operators Austria Telekom, T-Mobile, Hutchison.

The overall price paid for sub-1GHz spectrum and the 1800MHz spectrum amounted to €0.85/MHz/pop. This is only slightly less than the implied price for the sub-1GHz spectrum of €0.96/MHz/pop.

The price for sub-1 GHz spectrum is roughly in line with prices paid for 800MHz spectrum in recent European auctions.  The price paid for 800MHz spectrum in Germany was €0.73/MHz/pop (May 2010) and the average in Europe during 2010 to 2013 was €0.52/MHz/pop. So the price paid in Austria for 800MHz spectrum is relatively high. Benchmark prices paid to renew 900MHz spectrum are in the €0.19-0.53 range whereas the implied price paid in Austria amounts to €0.96/MHz/pop.

Exhibit 1: Austrian Spectrum Auction Results

Austria

 

However, since the overall price per MHz per pop paid is only slightly lower than the implied price for sub-1GHz spectrum, this means that operators valued the 1800Mhz spectrum very highly at €0.76/MHz pop.  This is significantly above prices paid for 1800MHz spectrum in recent auctions, and certainly massively more than prices paid for 2.6GHz spectrum. Benchmark prices paid to renew 1800MHz spectrum are in the €0.10 – 0.21 range.  In this context the comments by Telekom Austria’s CEO Hannes Ametsreiter, referring to a “bitter pill to swallow,” are quite appropriate.

The auction outcome highlights that in the context of the rapid growth of data traffic, spectrum is becoming an ever more valuable resource. The re-farming of 1800MHz from GSM to LTE requires more spectrum in the short term because spectrum resources cannot be used efficiently. In that sense governments can hold a gun to operators’ heads and demand almost any price.

1800MHz spectrum is the spectrum of choice for LTE in Europe. Most operators have built a grid based on 1800MHz and hence the 1800MHz band provides both an LTE capacity and an LTE coverage layer. In contrast 2.6GHz is “only” a capacity band. I placed quotation marks around the word “only” because LTE capacity is of course very important in urban areas and here cell sizes are quite small. Nevertheless, the in-building propagation characteristics of 1800MHz spectrum are significantly better than for 2.6GHz spectrum and in-building capacity matters for mobile broadband.

The auction outcome, with A1 Telekom (Telekom Austria) acquiring 2/3rds of the 800MHz band means that the company now holds 53.8% of sub-1 GHz spectrum compared to a subscriber market share of around 39%. As the operator with the weakest cash flow it is likely that Hutchison faced budget constraints. The result is that the market leader managed has managed to acquire a disproportionate share of spectrum.

The design of the Austrian auction and the absence of effective caps on sub 1GHz spectrum holdings suggest that the Austrian government is not particularly concerned about the effects of spectrum concentration on competition. On the other hand, the spectrum divesture conditions imposed on Hutchison (European Commission, DG Competition, CASE M.6497) to clear its acquisition of One Austria, suggests a very different view of spectrum concentration is applied when it comes to approving in-market consolidation.  The only saving grace for Hutchison is that there was no new entrant and so the requirement to divest 2x10MHz the 2.6GHz frequency band lapses; however the MVNO access requirement remains.

While Hutchison managed to increase its sub-1 GHz spectrum holding from 1.6MHz to 2x5MHz, the cost per eNodeB of deploying LTE is 2x5MHz is roughly the same as for Telekom Austria deploying LTE in 2x15MHz in the same band. Furthermore, there are already many smartphones with 800MHz LTE, where Telekom Austria acquired 2x20MHz, but as yet, none with 900MHz LTE.

In the light of this the comments by Trionow, CEO of H3G, describing the auction as a “disaster for the industry” are understandable. Certainly it is a disaster for Hutchison and for a competitive mobile broadband market in Austria.

 

Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO, Coleago Consulting

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Challenges for EU mobile operators

July 22, 2013

The European mobile telecoms industry is now at the maturity stage of the industry life cycle.  While the introduction of LTE is still a relatively recent event, there is limited revenue growth and consolidation is starting to set in. Rather than being challengers, in some ways mobile operators themselves have started to look like the old fixed line operators at the start of the telecoms market liberalisation in the 1980s.  National fixed line incumbents (PTTs) went into defensive mode as the EU’s Customer Premises Equipment directive ended their monopoly on the supply of telephones and PABX and the opening to competition of long distance and international calls forced operators into rebalancing and cost orientated pricing.  The European Commission predicted significant contributions of market growth and benefits to consumers and businesses and there is no doubt that the policy delivered this. Indeed, without the EU’s effort to push for liberalisation of telecoms markets we would not have today’s innovative mobile telecoms markets with multiple mobile operators.

Now these very mobile operators are on the defensive as the EU increases pressure to create a single telecoms market and puts its weight behind wholesale price transparency and net neutrality. Three of the statements made by Neelie Kroes, VP of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda in her speech of the 9th of July 2013 impact significantly on operators:

  • —  “Blocking or throttling services isn’t just unfair and annoying for users – it’s a death sentence for innovators too. So I will guarantee net neutrality.”
  • —  “European calls shouldn’t count as a costly international call; not within a true single market. …. so any difference in price must be objectively justified by additional costs.”
  • —  “In a true single market, there are no artificial roaming charges. It’s irritating, it’s unfair, it belongs to the past.”

In her speech Ms Kroes also addressed the issue of cross border consolidation: “If you’re allowed to operate anywhere in Europe – authorised within an EU framework — then you should be able to operate everywhere in the EU. … Like a single authorisation system with supervision by the home member state.”

While as yet true cross border consolidation has been rare, we already witness increased consolidation within markets either outright through M&A or through RAN sharing. RAN sharing is encouraged by some regulators in order to deliver mobile broadband coverage in rural areas and better LTE speeds in a wider band. For example, the “mutualisation” of spectrum was central to the 800MHz licence award in France. Regulators are well aware of the threat to competition posed by RAN sharing but in a mobile broadband world the economics of deploying LTE in a wide band favour RAN sharing.

These factors – cost orientated pricing, net neutrality, and consolidation – will shape the European mobile industry during the coming years.  They may even lead to the unbundling of mobile access from the provision of services, just as we have seen in the fixed network. Implicit in consolidation at network level is increased price transparency at wholesale level to allow multiple operators to compete fairly at retail level. In this context the elimination of roaming charges points towards the end of the traditional Inter Operator Tariff (IOT) roaming wholesale tariffing. Possibly within the EU bureaucracy someone has already been tasked with drafting a directive that would require EU mobile operators to publish a “reference access price offer”.

Let’s imagine a future where Apple or Google obtain wholesale access (MVNO) agreements in each of the European states and, instead of replicating the national mobile operator model, launch a pan-European service where the EU is a single nation, at least in terms of mobile phone service costs. Far-fetched? Well, many consumers already make smartphone choices ahead of network choices and to many people OTT services such as Skype, FaceTime and WhatsApp matter more than traditional phone calls.  We might even see a resuscitation of the trans-Europe dialling code (+388) designated for the European Telephony Numbering Space or ETNS.

As regards separating access and service, a line of attack comes from operators such as Rebtel in Sweden and Republic Wireless in the USA. These operators use WiFi offload and “push” their customers to make calls using Skype like services.  Mobile networks are only used in an MVNO fashion when out of WiFi coverage.

Is this the nightmare scenario for traditional mobile operators, where they are relegated to perform the role of the much quoted “dumb pipe”?  Firstly there is nothing “dumb” in operating a highly sophisticated LTE network while migrating millions of users from GSM and HSPA and coping with the mobile data tsunami. Secondly the massive growth in mobile broadband requires huge investments. Investments require returns and therefore it is the pipe where returns will be earned.

This scenario may actually be rather benign for investors in the mobile industry. Rather than fighting subsidy wars, being played off against each other by Apple, and driving up prices in spectrum auctions, operators could get on with building a superb mobile broadband infrastructure in an environment that allows investors to earn stable returns. After all, in the history of the European mobile industry the greatest decline in return on capital employed resulted from the 3G auctions in 1999 – 2002. Let others go crazy!  Investors who are attracted to stable returns would continue to invest in mobile network operators whereas those who seek a higher risk / return profile would invest in companies that provide services over these networks.

What has been the reaction of the mobile operators to threat to roaming and international call margins?  Some claimed that the loss of margin from roaming would lead to price increases elsewhere.   Yes, it probably would i.e. prices would become more cost orientated. This is not necessarily a bad thing for the mobile industry.

As the market is opened up and access is unbundled from other value chain activities, this provides an opportunity for new competitors. Operators such as Lebara and Lyca had some success in competing on the basis of low cost international calls from mobile phones. MVNOs such as Truphone, WoldSIM, roamline.com arbitrage the difference between wholesale and retail prices to deliver cheap roaming. Mobile operators watch these trends carefully and will not make general price cuts on high margin services if this reduces overall profits. They are responding in smart ways by offering low cost roaming to those who seek it. For example, EE of the UK which focusses on LTE offers “inclusive unlimited roaming minutes and texts for an extra £5 a month on a 24 month roaming plan”. Here we can see the future of roaming tariffs. The bigger threat is to those niche operators because their arbitrage opportunity reduces.

In response to lower intra-EU roaming charges some operators increased roaming prices outside Europe, but not in a cost orientated manner.  Most operators are wedded to a zonal pricing approach, pretending that somehow costs increase with distance. That’s nonsense.  Some of the highest Inter Operator Tariffs are levied close to Europe. For example, Tunisian mobile operators collude to set wholesale roaming prices as high as €1.50 per minute. While a European operator’s retail price for roaming in Tunisia of €2 per minute including VAT might seem high, it barely covers the wholesale cost. In some other markets much lower wholesale roaming prices can be obtained. This is also evident from the countries covered by EE’s unlimited international roaming deal which includes Europe and an odd mixture of countries including Australia, the US, Peru, Turkey, etc.

And what about the subsidised contract customer, i.e. the customer supposedly “owned” by the operator? After all the separation of handset and SIM was one of the great innovations of GSM because of its potential for increased competition. It is not necessarily the case that a customer life time value is higher for a consumer with an operator provided subsidised smartphone compared to a SIM only smartphone customer with a 30 day rolling contract.

Operators are aware of these trends and their offers are evolving in a segmented response to changes in the regulatory and competitive environment. There may be bumps along the road, but I am optimistic for the future of the mobile industry as a sector worth investing in.

Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO Coleago Consulting

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Australian spectrum auction failure

May 13, 2013

The Australian 700MHz and 2.6GHz spectrum auction results were announced on the 7th of May. The most striking result is that 2x15MHz of the 700MHz spectrum remained unsold because VHA (Vodafone) decided not bid and Optus acquired only 2x10MHz. This poor result is due to the extremely high reserve prices. The reserve price for the 700MHz digital dividend spectrum was set at 1.36 $/MHz/pop. This is 186 per cent of the average price paid in other auctions for digital dividend spectrum as shown in the chart below. Furthermore, by comparison the reserve price for digital dividend spectrum in the recent auction in the UK was only 0.30 $/MHz/pop and in Germany the reserve price amounted to less than one cent / MHz / pop.

Digital Dividend Spectrum Price Paid vs. Australian Reserve

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The rationale for freeing up spectrum from analogue TV for use by mobile broadband services is the benefit this brings to the economy.  At the start of the process of the digital switchover, the Australian Mobile Telecommunication Association (AMTA) engaged Spectrum Value Partners and Venture Consulting to determine the net economic benefit generated by redeploying the 700MHz spectrum freed up by the switch-off of analogue television, i.e. digital dividend.  They reported that:  “Allocating the optimal mix of UHF spectrum to mobile operators is forecast to generate a net benefit to the economy of between $7bn and $10bn, depending on which overall market scenario is realised. “ (Getting the most out of the digital dividend in Australia, Spectrum Value Partners and Venture Consulting, April 2009).

This estimate assumed that all of the digital dividend spectrum will be allocated to mobile.  In the event one third of the APT band plan 700MHz spectrum remains unsold whereas 100 per cent of the cost of freeing up the spectrum has been incurred. Therefore potentially several billion dollars of benefit to the economy has been lost as a result of setting reserve prices above the level where weaker operators can earn a normal return of capital employed.

The damage that has been inflicted on the Australian economy does not end there.  Since VHA ended up without spectrum it will further weaken their relevance in the market. Since competition is likely to have been weakened this will reduce the “consumer surplus” from the digital dividend i.e. the benefit consumers would gain in the form of lower prices.

Of course the most direct impact is the lower auction revenue for the Government. The Australian government budgeted in revenue from the auction at least equal to the total reserve, i.e. AS$ 2,894 million. In the event the auction raised only AS$ 1,964 million, i.e. 32 per cent below the target.

The auction failure could hardly be more complete.  Yet, it was widely predicted that with these high reserve prices spectrum would remain unsold, in fact Vodafone said it would not bid unless the reserve prices are lowered.  The outcome says a lot about politician’s lack of understanding of how investment decisions are made and also demonstrates an unwillingness to listen to the industry.

The blame for the ACMA’s auction fiasco lies mostly with the government since the reserve prices were set by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy who set out his stall in his now infamous declaration of “unfettered legal power” over telecommunications “The regulation of telecommunications powers in Australia is exclusively federal. That means I am in charge of spectrum auctions, and if I say to everyone in this room ‘if you want to bid in our spectrum auction you’d better wear red underpants on your head’, I’ve got some news for you. You’ll be wearing them on your head … I have unfettered legal power.”

Conroy clearly told everyone that he had no intention of listening to the industry. The reserve prices were set to plug the Government’s budget deficit. This is the worst way to set reserve prices for spectrum. It is devoid of any rationale and is in effect a hidden tax to be paid for by consumers in form of higher prices.

Although Australians are always good for a bit of fun, I very much doubt that bidders in the Australian spectrum auction wore red underpants on their heads. However, in the light of the spectrum auction fiasco, it is plausible that the Minister now wears a red face.

Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO Coleago Consulting

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The end of spectrum auctions?

April 22, 2013

Last week the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) announced a value-for-money study of Ofcom’s CCA format spectrum auction, with the presumptions that it should have raised more money. Last week the US Department of Justice Anti-Trust Division made a submission to the FCC, questioning whether spectrum auctions deliver the greatest societal value. In March 2013, the Czech Telecommunication Officer (CTO) cited “excessively high” spectrum prices as the main reason for the cancellation of a spectrum auction. While these events come from three different angles, they in effect question whether auctions are the best method of allocating spectrum to mobile operators. Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of spectrum auctions?

Let’s start with a fundamental argument against spectrum auctions. Last week the US Department of Justice Anti-Trust Division made an Ex Parte Submission to the FCC In the Matter of Policies Regarding Mobile Spectrum Holdings. “The Department believes that a set of well-defined, competition-focused rules for spectrum acquisitions, particularly in auctions, would best serve the dual goals of putting spectrum to use quickly and promoting consumer welfare in wireless markets.” The Anti-Trust Division of the DoJ is concerned with competition thus it strives to prevent the emergence of monopolies or oligopolies to ensure that end-users benefit from competitive markets. The DoJ previously voiced its concern with regards to spectrum auctions but it is not the first to realise the potentially negative effects of auctions.

Policy makers believed that market based allocation through competitive auctions were the best method to allocate spectrum in as much they would generate greatest societal benefit. When all bidders are equal, a spectrum auction may well be preferable to a beauty contest style spectrum allocation which lacks objectivity and transparency. It is in that sense that spectrum auctions played a useful role while the wireless industry went through its growth phase.

Auctions are said to be economically efficient if they allocate spectrum to the bidder who places the highest private value on the spectrum. Economic efficiency assumes that the bidder who generates the highest private value also generates the highest social value. If the two diverge then the outcome is not efficient as it is the maximisation of social value that is critical to efficiency. The bidder with the highest private value may therefore not necessarily be the bidder who generates the highest social value.

Coleago has carried out many spectrum valuations projects and a key task is to identify the sources of spectrum value. In many cases the largest source of value was the “blocking value”, i.e. the value to the bidder of keeping out a new entrant or preventing a smaller competitor from acquiring sufficient spectrum resources to compete effectively in the mobile broadband market. The DoJ refers to this as the “foreclosure value” as distinct from “use value”. Regulators are often desperate to prevent this and may set aside spectrum for new entrants (e.g. AWS in Canada, 2008), try to ensure that recent new entrants survive (e.g. 800MHz auction in France, 2010), or set spectrum caps.

Despite the issues highlighted above telecoms regulators are still keen on spectrum auctions and now favour the Combinatorial Clock Auction (CCA) format. A combinatorial auction has many benefits, but also limitations, particularly in a mature mobile market. An unfettered CCA favours large bidders and, depending on the rules, may allow vexatious bidding purely to impose costs on others. Hence regulators introduce all manner of rules to undo what a combinatorial auction is all about, namely to allocate spectrum to the highest bidder. Such “auction limitation rules” include band specific or overall caps, band specific obligations, limitations to bid based on market share, high reserve prices, roaming rules, deployment rules, etc. The imposition of such limitations invalidates the central hypothesis of a combinatorial auction with a second price rule; they are a misuse of this auction format. These limitations are also a tacit admission that auctions are no longer an appropriate spectrum allocation mechanism.

The auction orthodoxy has been further discredited by high reserve prices. In some cases reserve prices are so high that operators merely buy “their share” of the spectrum on offer at the reserve price. The Greek spectrum auction in November 2011 was a fine example. The combined reserve price was set at €82 million and the combined bid value amounted to €82.52 million. In other cases auction formats and reserve prices lead to extremely high prices in terms of €/MHz/pop, taking large amounts of money out of the industry. This is rather schizophrenic. On the one hand governments are taking billions out of the wireless industry and on the other hand they try to promote the building of broadband networks.

In this context the most bizarre event is the cancellation of the multi-band spectrum auction in the Czech Republic in March 2013. The Czech Telecommunication Officer (CTO) cited “excessively high” spectrum prices as the main reason for the cancellation, fearing these high prices would lead to higher prices for mobile broadband and slower deployment. Setting aside the point that the CTO’s arguments are not supported by economic theory, if the CTO does not believe in market based solutions, why have a spectrum auction in the first place?

The CTO’s reaction to high “high prices” is thrown into sharp relief by the announcement of the UK’s National Audit Office (NAO) on 15th of April 2013 to conduct a value-for-money study of Ofcom’s CCA format spectrum auction. The auction which concluded in February 2013 raised £2.3bn, which was £1.2bn less than the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer budgeted for. Apparently the NAO does not believe that the CCA delivered what it should and is taking a politician’s budget target as an indication of the “right price”, and this despite the fact that Ofcom made clear that the primary objective of the auction was not to maximise the amount of money raised.

In most markets the mobile industry is now mature. Rather than new market entry consolidation is the name of the game. This is what is to be expected in maturing markets in any industry. The emphasis should therefore be to ensure that consumers have choice and prices are as low as they can be. This is not necessarily achieved by insisting on spectrum auctions and insisting that there is a large number of competing network operators. Sooner or later regulators will abandon the dogma of auctions and accept that the industry is heading for consolidation, at least network level and may devise administered spectrum allocation mechanism which “distribute” new spectrum among a reasonable number of operators, perhaps 3 or 4 in each market, depending on absolute size.

The DoJ’s filing does not call for an end to auctions, but it clearly voices the opinion that unfettered spectrum auctions are not in the public interest. Implicit in the DoJ’s approach is the belief that government knows best and is best placed to determine what number of network operators generate the greatest benefit to society. However, it is questionable that the public interest is best served by such an approach particularly since governments have erred on the high side with regards to the number of operators that a market can sustain. Enforced competition at network level leads to the destruction of value as has happened for example in Canada, Australia and some other markets. In any event, regulators start to have problems of a different kind: how to deal with global oligopolies created by successful OTT players.

Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO Coleago Consulting

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The end of geography and roaming in telecoms

March 4, 2013

Today most people are familiar with services such as Skype. Effectively a location independent mobile service, with Skype it does not matter where people call from nor does it matter where the called party is located. Geography has become irrelevant. By the end of Q4 2012, it was anticipated that roughly 50 per cent of international call traffic is likely to have taken place via Skype and similar services rather than traditional carrier traffic.

More and more people are installing Skype on their handsets or using Facetime on their iPhone, and they are getting used to the fact that calling from their mobile phones doesn’t necessarily have to involve the mobile operator. What’s more they also get video telephony. Increasingly people use WiFi on their smartphones, both at home, at work and in public places. The introduction of WPA2 as well as SIM based authentication which allows automatic connection to a WiFi network without signing in makes it easy for users to route their traffic via WiFi and opt out of traditional telephony.  Operators such as Rebtel in Sweden and Republic Wireless in the USA focus on this opportunity – these mobile operators that use WiFi offload “push” their customers to make calls using Skype like services.

The trend away from making standard mobile voice calls is accelerating with the adoption of LTE. For example, in contrast to older versions of the iPhone, the new iPhone with Apple’s iOS 6 upgraded FaceTime from a WiFi only feature to a cellular feature. AT&T Wireless was the first to allow customers to use FaceTime over LTE if they signed up to their new shared data tariff plan.

During 2013 we will see the start of a fundamental reshaping of mobile telecoms service offerings driven by new services based on the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS), the evolution of mobile wholesale as well as regulatory trends. Some operators may go all the way and break the link between the mobile telephone numbers and geography. After all it seems somewhat archaic that in a world where distance does not matter, mobile operator tariffs are still based on location and distance. Location is not an issue with Skype or FaceTime and this is one of the reasons for the success of these OTT operators.

Some operators have already introduced services based on IMS, for example in Canada the Rogers One Number service allows the seamless switching between a smartphone and computer. It allows mobile operators to leverage the proliferation of free WiFi connectivity to in effect extend their network coverage world-wide.  This allows mobile operators to fight back against OTT services such as Skype, WhatsApp and FaceTime by in effect becoming themselves an “OTT over WiFi” player.

There are also traditional mobile services that allow users to avoid roaming charges and thus take at least one aspect of geography out of equation that already exists for voice (Truphone, WoldSIM and other) and data (roamline.com, in collaboration with KPN). The business model is built on exploiting the difference between lower wholesale prices paid by MVNOs versus high inter-operator roaming tariffs by offering customer SIMs with multiple numbers in different countries.

The opportunity to take geography out of mobile pricing is not limited to roaming. For example, Turk Telecom launched a service in Germany and Belgium aimed at the Turkish ethnic segment in these countries. Customers are charged exactly the same amount to call numbers in Belgium or Turkey. Turkcell could add the ability to recharge linked accounts (a Turkish person working in Belgium can recharge the prepaid SIM of relatives in Turkey) and make small mobile payments across borders. Smart, of the Philippines is already going down this route, targeting the Filipino diaspora segment around the world.

As a result of these trends in international call pricing as well as roaming, Geography may soon become irrelevant.

Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO, Coleago Consulting

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