Impending changes in the UK telecom market

 

With the recent approval by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) of BT’s takeover of EE and the ongoing attempt by Three to takeover its competitor O2, the UK telecom landscape is about to change. Before getting into details, let’s take a step back and take a broader look at the global scenario. Mergers and acquisitions have represented a main theme for the TMT (Technology, Media and Telecommunications) sector for many years; nowadays, as the US are approaching a final phase of consolidation, Europe has been the scene for a new wave of mergers, which is likely to deeply affect the communications market for the next years. Many European countries have been recently consolidating to a three/four operators market, with three main players and a fourth operator maintaining a small presence in the market. Within this scenario of increasing consolidation, the UK makes no exception. In 2015, the completion of EE’s merger with Orange and T-mobile had already reduced the UK telecommunication market to four operators. Now, with EE’s acquisition by BT and the upcoming merger between O2 and 3, the UK telecom market fits right within the picture we have just described. However, CK Hutchison’s plan of acquiring Telefonica’s O2 might encounter some difficulties due to its relevant implications in the telecommunications market. Unlike the BT-EE deal, which merged a fixed-line broadband company with a mobile operator, the O2-3 deal, if finalized, will create the largest mobile operator in the UK and reduce the number of players in the UK telecom market from four to three, thus giving the newly combined entity a 40% market share. Sharon White, the head of the UK’s media regulator Ofcom, has declared her concerns on how this merger would damage competition among mobile companies, reduce customers choice and increase prices. The potential damaging effects to price competition deriving from this considerable change in the UK telecoms landscape are also causing concerns among regulatory authorities. The CMA had requested to oversee the deal, valued at £10.25 billion; however cross-border deals of this size require to be examined by Brussels regulators. Therefore, the deal is currently being reviewed by the European Commission, which will present the companies with a “Statement of Objections” by the end of the month. Within this scenario of “merger mania”, the European Commission is trying to establish how many operators need to be present in one country in order to ensure competition within the market. In the past few years, the ex EU’s antitrust chief Joaquin Almunia’s regulatory policy has been favourable to consolidations in the telecom industry and as a result many countries – Austria, Germany and Ireland – have been able to achieve four-to-three mergers and become a threeoperators market. Other countries as Italy, France and UK are likely to experience the same fate soon, although the new, stricter policy might pose some difficulties in doing so. The new European Commissioner Margrethe Vestager believes that mobile-phone operators mergers in one country may lead to higher prices without boosting investments in the network and thus benefiting shareholders at the expenses of customers. She declared that: “We want to ensure that consumers in the UK do not pay higher prices or face less choice as a result of this proposed takeover”. As a consequence she has been adopting a tougher approach than her predecessor, by imposing severe restrictions on future deals. Therefore, Brussels is expected to attach onerous conditions to the 3-O2 deal, which might include the burden for the combined entity to sell off a portion of the combined network. This would not be the first example of Vestager’s stricter policy, as last year she caused a similar deal between the two Scandinavian companies Telenor and TeliaSonera to derail due to excessively severe conditions. In this uncertain scenario, French billionaire Xavier Niel has held “preliminary talks” with Ofcom about acquiring network assets sold under the European Commission’s regulatory pressure. Already present in France as the majority shareholder of the French Internet service provider and mobile operator Iliad, Niel has showed its ambition to expand its business in Italy and in the US and may now be looking for an opportunity to enter the UK. According to the Financial Times, Niel might take advantage from 3-O2 merger and use it to enter the competitive UK market. It is still to be seen who will end up winning this arm wrestling between CK Hutchison and Commissioner Vestager. Assuming the deal is approved by the Commission, the UK telecommunication landscape will definitely experience some changes.

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