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Telefonica O2 and e-Plus merger: a new 4th network operator makes little sense

Today the FT reported that in order to overcome objections to the proposed take-over of E-Plus “Telefónica has offered to equip a new German mobile competitor with spectrum”.  This is similar to the offer by Hutchinson 3 in the context of its take-over of Orange Austria. In the event there was of course no new network based entrant in Austria, the aim of the Telefonica O2 and E-Plus tie up is to take costs out of the industry by reducing the number of mobile network operators. At this stage of the industry life cycle consolidation at network level is expected. This is driven by high prices paid for spectrum and continuing high LTE capex while revenues remain flat or in decline. When free cash flow declines, capital has to be taken out of the industry simply to get back to returns that are not below the cost of capital.

The FT also reports that Telefónica promised concessions for MVNOs. Competition remedies at wholesale level in the form of a reference wholesale access price offer – similar to what was agreed to by Hutchison in Austria – are a much more effective remedy. This is particularly true for Germany which already has a vibrant MVNO market. Indeed E-Plus pioneered the multi-band MVNO strategy and hence concessions at wholesale level are likely to be impactful. Given the competitive MVNO market in Germany, regulating wholesale prices provides an effective insurance against retail price increases, which might otherwise result from the tie-up.

If indeed wholesale price regulation ends up as the key remedy, and this in Europe’s largest mobile market, we are one step closer to the structural separation of the European mobile industry into NetCos and ServiceCos.

Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO, Coleago Consulting

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