Posts Tagged ‘France’


Consolidation in the European mobile industry is inevitable, but what path will it take?

April 7, 2014

It has been pointed out many times that the EU with around 100 mobile operators, serving a roughly similar size population as the USA, is hugely fragmented compared to the mobile industry in the USA. The historic reason is easy to understand, but the fight put up by Directorate-General for Competition of the European Commission to halt in-country consolidation is harder to understand.

In the model used to analyse the impact of mergers on retail prices, the Competition Directorate, assumes that retail prices will always go up as a result of a merger between two MNOs in the same country. It does not assume that the efficiencies brought about by a merger would, at least in part, be passed on to consumers in form of lower prices or better service in terms of coverage or access speeds.

Network sharing is encouraged under EU rules as long as it is limited to the Node B and RNC and excludes spectrum and the core. A great deal of cost sits in the RAN, and hence RAN sharing could be termed “merger lite”. With LTE, it is efficient to deploy the technology in as wide a band as possible. Hence significant additional savings could be brought about if spectrum is shared.  This reduces competition at network level, but also delivers consumer benefits in form of higher access speeds.

The transactions now awaiting approval by the Competition Directorate are the O2 and Eplus tie-up in Germany, Hutchison’s takeover of O2 in Ireland and, if the acquisition of SFR by Altice fails, then also the Bouygues – SFR take-over in France.  The conditions the European Commission attached to the Hutchison 3 take-over of Orange Austria may serve as an indicator as to the conditions that might be imposed to allow these deals to go ahead. Among other conditions, Hutchison Austria had to publish a wholesale access price reference offer for MVNOs. By regulating wholesale prices, the Commission in effect bought insurance against sharp increases in retail prices because it would allow MVNOs to undercut these.

The conditions imposed on Hutchison Austria may be a first step towards the structural separation of the mobile industry into Netcos and Retailcos. In a world where mobile network operators share much of their network and perhaps spectrum, these mobile operators start to look more like MVNOs on a shared network. Structural separation may not be a “horror scenario” for mobile operators if returns on invested capital can increase as a result.

Looking at what business mobile operators are actually in, it seems that they are to a large extent hire purchase phone vendors. Comparing SIM only postpaid tariffs with postpaid plans that include a “free” smartphone, it appears that the price for SIM only deals is 50% below plans with a bundled handset. Therefore roughly 50% of a mobile network operator’s business is not about running a network but about selling phones on credit. Other than marketing and selling phones and SIMs, customer care and billing are a big cost bucket attributable to the retail activity of an MNO.

Retail activities are scalable, i.e. can be done profitably at different volumes. In contrast the Netco activity is not scalable because costs are fixed. Netco returns are a function of network utilisation. By structurally separating retail and wholesale activities in exchange for being allowed to merge networks including spectrum, MNOs might see lower costs and as a result higher returns, all the while prices at retail level may not move or even decline.

Barriers to entry and exit in the Mobile Netco activity are extremely high. We are now in the maturity stage of the industry life cycle, and it is normal for consolidation to take place. Furthermore, regulators have hastened the need for consolidation because they took billions of Euros out of the industry through spectrum auctions. This had the effect of dramatically reducing returns to investors. And yet, the Directorate responsible for telecoms, DG Connect, ceaselessly points out the benefit to European industry of increased investment in mobile broadband networks. How can the policy objectives of DG Connect and DG Competition be delivered simultaneously?

From the industry perspective, if structural separation allows returns to increase despite increased competition at retail level, then structural separation might be the way forward. Competition might drive down margins in the retail activity, but this is not problematic because in contrast to the Netco activity reducing capital or even exiting the retail activity is possible.

The proposed consolidation in Germany is most interesting in this regard. Eplus pioneered a multi-brand wholesale and MVNO strategy precisely because E-Plus was sub-scale. As can be seen by leafing through some older KPN investor presentations (KPN E-Plus Seminar, Delivering profitable growth, Sep 2006), this resulted in lower subscriber acquisition costs and higher EBITDA. The strategy brought about a flourishing MVNO and reseller activity, thus increasing consumer choice. This means within Eplus the set-up exists to take the concept forward to full structural separation.

From the mobile industry perspective a further benefit of consolidation at network level would be that governments can no longer pit competing operators against each other in spectrum auctions, such as the forthcoming second digital dividend. High spectrum reserve prices would finally be seen for what they are: a tax on the mobile industry that ultimately has to be paid for by the consumer. Furthermore it may be better to be in a regulated industry with reasonable returns rather than in an industry with wafer thin returns, high investment needs and continued technology risk.

Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO Coleago Consulting


Misguided approach to EU intervention on roaming charges

July 15, 2013

In her speech on the 9 July 2013, Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, reiterated her assault on roaming charges within the EU. There is talk of regulatory intervention to eliminate roaming charges within the EU.

While mobile operators may earn good margins on roaming, a mandated elimination of roaming charges is ill conceived because mobile operators in different EU countries face different costs. One of the most significant investments made by mobile operators is in buying spectrum.  For example, for the 800MHz digital dividend spectrum, operators in Denmark paid €0.30 per MHz per head of population (€/MHz/pop) whereas in France, operators paid €0.67/MHz/pop i.e. 123% more.  Some cash strapped EU countries set high reserve prices for spectrum €0.58/ MHz/pop in Italy vs. €0.10/MHz/pop in Denmark. Coupled with differences in deploying 4G LTE coverage, this translates into hundreds of million euro differences in capex.

Furthermore there are significant differences in the timing of spectrum allocations and hence the deployment of LTE which translates into huge cost differences for mobile data. Assuming investors like to earn similar returns, these cost differences will result in different wholesale and retail prices. Therefore it does not make sense to mandate the same retail prices regardless of the country in which the traffic occurs.

If the EU and its member countries are really so keen on a single telecoms market, why not start by allowing operators regardless of their country of operation to select a national telecoms regulator of their choice to regulate them.  I suspect the Danish regulator would attract quite a few “customers” whereas the Italian and Greek regulators might go out of business. The resulting reduction in regulatory costs could be passed on consumers in form of lower retail prices.

Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO, Coleago Consulting


Vive la différence II

September 29, 2011

The French telecoms regulator announced at the end of last week that they have finished the 2.6GHz auction process begun in June.

FDD Allocation (MHz total) Price (m€) €/MHz/POP Obligatory MVNO access
Orance 40 287 0.110 Y
SFR 30 150 0.077 N
Bouygues 30 228 0.116 Y
Free Mobile 40 271 0.104 Y
TOTAL 140 936 0.102

The format used in France was a first price single round sealed bid which meant there was no opportunity to learn and can lead to disparities in prices paid. As if to illustrate this point, one player (SFR) got the spectrum at the reserve and did not need to commit to hosting MVNOs.Although the price per MHz per pop does not look outrageous compared to some other 2.6 GHz auctions (e.g. Denmark and Sweden for example), it is 4.5x that seen in Germany in 2010 and this might be (partially) explained by the fact that the reserve price level set in France was a lot higher than that in Germany – 25x on a per MHz POP basis.

The 800MHz digital dividend spectrum is now to be launched before year end.

Written by Scott McKenzie, Director, Coleago Consulting


Vive la différence

August 3, 2011

The French telecoms regulator ARCEP announced the terms of the country’s 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz spectrum auction process in June. There are several noticeable features of the process: firstly the bands are being sold off sequentially with the 2.6GHz spectrum being auctioned in September and the 800MHz in December; secondly the auction is a first price sealed bid format, which is rather uncommon these days given the potential drawbacks with this format; and thirdly the reserve prices have been set at a very high level which is consistent with the worrying trend we have seen in other countries lately.

Since the auctions are sequential there is what game theorists call exposure risk which is due to the complimentary nature of 800MHz and 2.6GHz spectrum – i.e. a risk of overpaying for 2.6GHz spectrum as their bid price is based on an assumption they also win 800MHz and then fail to do so. In other words, should they bid on the 2.6GHz spectrum assuming no synergies with the 800MHz band and then risk not getting their desired allocation at 2.6GHz?

Given the fact that the format to be used in each stage is a single round first price sealed bid auction with no opportunity for price discovery, there is inherently a risk to significantly overpay – the so called “winner’s curse”. Equally there is a potential “loser’s curse” where a bidder might narrowly miss out on a spectrum block it might have been prepared to pay more for. With such a format, a bidder needs to study its own and competitors’ likely valuations as well as bidding intentions carefully to ensure successful participation and avoid embarrassing outcomes.

As we have seen in other European countries, which have announced forthcoming spectrum auctions (see our recent blog post on the Greek auction for example), the regulator is setting the reserve prices at a very high level in order to guarantee a high minimum revenue – in this case €2.5bn. If we compare the reserve prices set for the auction held in Germany in 2010 for example, it is striking that on a €/MHz/POP basis the French reserve prices have been set at 100x and 25x for the 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz bands respectively (although note the format used in Germany was multi-round). Although high reserve prices do discourage frivolous participation they also undoubtedly favour the bidders with deeper pockets and it could be argued that if the regulator really believed in market forces (since they are holding an auction) then they should set a low reserve and let the market decide.

Scott McKenzie, Director Coleago Consulting