CEO, IDATE DigiWorld
It is a surprise?
No, everyone was expecting it. First, because Altice/Numericable-SFR spokespeople had underscored the appeal of such a deal and, second, because in most European countries we are seeing national market structures going from four to three mobile operators. Such is the already the case in Germany and the UK, and very likely in Italy and Spain.
If we look at the situation outside the European Union, we see that in the United States there are four national operators for as many people as there are in Europe’s five biggest markets combined.
Would this means an increase in retail market prices?
Let’s not forget that, in France and in most other countries in Europe, the sector is in a state of deflation, and has been suffering a steady decline in revenue since 2008. Another outstanding feature of the French market is particularly low prices. While this is of course a positive thing for consumers, it can also be at the expense of investment (which decreased in France in 2014) and innovation: in a healthy competitive environment, price alone must not be the sole element of distinction between vendors.
Second, predicting what the landscape will look like after this merger occurs, Free will no doubt remain very aggressive on the pricing front for mobile products as it works to close the gap with its rivals: it would represent only just over 7% of the sector’s revenue, well behind Orange (43%) and the new SFR with just under 50%. In the fixed line market, the breakdown of market share would be less dramatic (23.5% –41.5% – 35% respectively) but competition should remain quite lively.
Would this mean a decrease in investment?
Theoretically, it is possible that we will see a decrease in telcos’ combined CAPEX. But this remains theoretical if we take into account the situation of a sector that is struggling to get back on its feet, and to invest at a rate that keeps pace with the ongoing increase in superfast fixed and mobile network traffic. Remember that telcos’ spending in France was down in 2014. Here again, it is interesting to compare with the situation in the United States: over the past two years, telcos’ combined per capita spending on mobile networks in the United States was roughly double what is was in Europe’s main markets.
The goal for public authorities and consumer associations examining the deal should include an expectation that it would accelerate the pace of superfast fibre and 4G+ network coverage nationwide.
What have we seen, in terms of prices and investment, in other European countries that have experienced a similar consolidation?
In Germany, it is still too early to draw any conclusions. In the UK, in a market once populated by five operators, the merger of T-Mobile UK and Orange UK in 2009 – which were the country’s third and fourth largest operators, respectively, at the time, with a close to 20% market share each – resulted in the creation of a new leader, EE, with a 37% market share at the outset, but which fell to 32% in 2014. Calling prices in particular decreased steadily: the average price of a mobile calling minute dropped by 17% between 2009 and 2012. The company’s spending decreased in 2010 but rose again in subsequent years: T-Mobile UK and Orange invested an average 9% of their network revenue in 2008, compared to close to 10% for EE in 2014 – although it is also true that the company’s combined revenue decreased by 22% during that time.
In Austria, Hutchison’s takeover of the local Orange subsidiary, which took the market from four operators to three, had the opposite effect: putting an end to ongoing price decreases, and even resulting in a significant increase in 2013 of around 20% on the previous year. Although it should be said that prices in Austria had been very low for a long time. The consolidated entity’s capital expenditures (as part of the 3 conglomerate) dipped slightly, but relative CAPEX rose from 16.5% of the company’s revenue in 2012 to close to 20% in 2014.
What can we expect from the players if the deal goes through?
Numericable-SFR should take in around €2 billion in cash from the sale of the Bouygues Telecom network to Iliad/Free. It should also be able to enjoy economies of scale in the revenue generated from Bouygues Telecom customers, thanks to the new entity’s improved OPEX and CAPEX ratios.
Bouygues is given an exit strategy under terms that are far better than what was on the table six months ago, even if the short-term outlook for free cash flow is not guaranteed.
Iliad can look forward to putting an end to its roaming agreements with Orange, and gaining a 4G network with one of the two best rates of national coverage, without having to have built it itself. The company is also likely to gain access to new frequencies, either directly under the terms of the deal or indirectly as the result of imposed “remedies”.
As to Orange, it will suffer from the lost roaming revenue from Free, earlier than planned, but could also benefit from more stable market prices.
How are antitrust authorities, and public policy-makers in general, likely to react?
The new SFR would become the mobile market leader, earning just under 50% of the sector’s revenue, ahead of Orange with 42% and Free with >7%. This market structure is not likely to curry favour with the competition authority. As concerns the deal itself, the competition authority should view the Bouygues Telecom-Iliad aspect as a guarantee of ongoing competition, as the smallest operator would enjoy a real gain in assets. Depending on the frequency-related options that are included in the terms of the deal, France’s anti-trust authorities could impose further spectrum sales and terms in support of MVNOs.
The biggest issue for public authorities is the destabilising impact on the rules for upcoming auctions being held by market regulator, ARCEP. The original rules had been designed to maximise bidding incentives for a four-player market. Now, they will need to consider how these rules will be affected by the likelihood of a three-player market, keeping in mind that, even if it does go through, the merger is not likely to close before the auctions are held later this year.
In the fixed access market, public authorities could see the deal as a way to strengthen guarantees from operators for superfast fibre network rollouts: chiefly Numericable-SFR and Orange, which are by far the heaviest investors in new gen systems.
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