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