The EU Monopoly Telcos are getting back together: how will the EU respond?

The recently announced tie up between EE (owned jointly by France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom) and BT to enable the latter (with the 4G spectrum it has acquired) to re-enter the mobile market and the former to piggy back its £1.5 bn investment in 4G onto BTs network upgrades (including those co-funded by BDUK) has profound implications.

I will begin with one of the simplest, that for rural broadband. The EU state aid clearance for the BDUK framework contracts was provisional. Faced with a collective of former state telcos (BT, France Telecom and Deutsche Telecom) with dominant local positions covering both fixed and mobile, the final review is likely to be “robust”. This makes it important that any extra state funding is not put at risk but contracted separately, whether via local authorities (perhaps using the PSN frameworks) or via vouchers (akin to the SME four cities pilot). 

More complex, however, are the implications for Vodafone and Telefonica (O2), who have their own infrastructure sharing arrangement. Vodafone will have several £10s of billions left after paying down debt and rewarding shareholders from the proceeds of the sale of its US operations to Verizon. I speculated that it might buy Liberty (parent of Virgin Media) but was told that it had enough problems sorting out past acquisitions, including overhauling the neglected Cable and Wireless networks. It was said to be more likely that Vodafone would focus on creating integrated international business and consumer services, including carrying content for others. The challenge is to ensure that it does so in the UK and across the EU, not “just” in the developing world – where the rewards, (after tax, regulatory overheads and political risk), are currently more obvious.

If Vodafone is persuaded to invest in the UK, the “duopoly” of BT/EE and the former cable companies (now Virgin Media), could well be turned into a genuine triumvirate – competing to offer services to communications resellers like Talk Talk and content publishers, like Sky.

Of course each player will claim to offer convergence, alias try to eat each others lunch (as with BT offering content and Sky offering broadband) so the outcome is by no means certain. It does, however,  mean that Ofcom will have to take its role as a competition regulator very much more seriously, lest the Government decide that this were better given to some-one else – even to Brussels. 

This analysis leaves out players like the BBC, (who have just appointed a controller for the iPlayer , as their 5th Channel), the MacQuarry siblings, (such as Arqiva , who run most of the terrestrial broadcast services and Airwave, emergency communications) and many others.

In short, the UK has a potentially vibrant and competitive communications market at the national level. One of the ongoing challenges is to ensure that local communities can access that market. Here I am delighted that INCA appears to be growing strongly as a voice for cities, as well as for village and hamlets and for the alternative suppliers who can serve them more economically than the national players.

This is a bit of a speculative brain dump because I am trying to work through the challenges of organising fundamental policy reviews, akin to those (Conservative and TUC) on which I worked back in 1978 -9. They led to all-party support for communications liberalisation and duopoly, albeit the Labour party did not, at least initially, support privatisation.

The task today is to ensure that the current potential is turned into reality, with evolving, competitive (in all meanings), world-class (resilience and reliability as well as capacity, speed and price) communications infrastructures for a 21st century in which everything is interconnected *.

The first, and biggest, challenge is to assemble teams that will not bolt down short term rabbit holes to address immediate concerns, important though some of these are, at the expence of long term solutions. Once the teams are assembled I am due to stand back and let them get on with it, as was done for policy teams on which I worked over thirty years ago.

I cannot guarantee they will be listened to, any more than we received such guarantees then. Nor can I offer any funding. Nonethless, I look forward to hearing from potential volunteers, especially those who think I am wrong on major points.

* I should perhaps add that I find Douglas Adams definition more helpful than the “Internet of Everything” beause the issues are far more to with people and politics than “mere” people.          

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