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UK MNOs set to claw back £200+ million in licence fees

Young successful businessman win a lot of money.

A UK court has ruled in favour of the telcos in an on-going battle with regulator Ofcom over licence fees paid on spectrum assets between 2015 and 2017.

The legal battle concerns the process which was undertaken by Ofcom prior to increasing licence fees paid by each of the telcos for access to the airwaves. The decision to increase the licence fees was met by much criticism during the initial announcement, and you can see why.

The licence fees concern 900 MHz and 1800 MHz spectrum assets awarded to each of the telcos during a 2013 auction.

Telco Fee paid (post-2015) Fee paid (pre-2015) Difference
Vodafone £76,245,025.10 £21,865,536 £54,379,489.10
O2 £76,245,025.10 £21,865,536 £54,379,489.10
Three £44,390,398.53 £17,463,600 £26,926,798.53
EE/BT £139,823,997 £57,380,400 £82,443,597

While telcos are constantly complaining about regulation, as well as the amount paid to regulators around the world, the drastic difference in licence fees was too much to stomach here.

Following the decision to increase licence fees, EE was first to act, challenging the ruling in the courts in 2017. The other UK MNOs were quick to follow, with Ofcom being named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

“We welcome the court’s decision that finds in favour of the mobile operators,” said an O2 spokesperson. “We are however disappointed that Ofcom has been granted leave for appeal and we will strongly defend any future appeal brought by Ofcom.”

Ofcom will most likely appeal the decision.

The argument from the telcos is one which we have heard before. The more money which is demanded from Ofcom, the less which is available to invest in networks to ready the UK for the digital economy.

Following EE’s decision to challenge the changes to licence fees in 2015, a move which was supported by the other MNOs, Ofcom decided to revert back to the licence fees which were paid in the previous regime. There has been another consultation since, resulting in an increase to licence fees paid moving forward, though this case is focused on the period between 2015 and November 2017.

Aside from clawing back the payments made during this period, the parties have agreed simple interest be applied on whatever sum is due, calculated at 2% above the Bank of England base rate during the period.

For the MNOs, this news will be very much welcomed considering the financial burden they face ahead of the 5G era. With billions set to be spent rolling out the networks, a bit of financial relief will go a long way.


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