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Aussie regulator not in the ‘real world’ over Vodafone and TPG

Australia network

Lawyers representing Vodafone Australia and TPG have suggested the Australian competition watchdog is not living in reality as it continues quest to force in a fourth MNO.

Last year, Vodafone and TPG announced intentions to merge operations in pursuit of creating a business which can offer comprehensive services in both the mobile and fixed segments. The pair were searching for ‘synergies’, seemingly a play to compete in the world of convergence, but the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission disagreed, blocking the merger four months ago.

The ACCC rationale was relatively simple; if the pair are forced to continue to operate independently, they could potentially fund their own fixed and mobile networks, broadening competition across the country. Vodafone and TPG suggest this is not the case.

“What TPG wants is for this merger to go through but when you step back and look at the options and approach it had before August 2018… it is entirely commercially realistic that TPG will return to rolling out a mobile network,” said Michael Hodge, representing the ACCC in court.

However, the opposition hit back.

“There isn’t a real chance that TPG will pursue the rollout of a mobile network. There is not a real chance that TPG will become Australia’s fourth network,” said Inaki Berroeta, Vodafone Australia CEO.

The dispute here is simple. The ACCC wants four, independent MNOs across the country. TPG made some noise about deploying its own network prior to the merger announcement, though these ambitions were seemingly quashed by the ban on Huawei technology in the country.

“TPG did try to build it, but it was thwarted by community objections, by technical difficulties but ultimately by the federal government’s security guidance,” Ruth Higgins, the legal representative of TPG, said.

Vodafone and TPG do not believe they can compete with Optus and Telstra without a merger, though the ACCC is under the impression a fourth MNO will emerge organically.

TPG did announce in May 2018 it was planning to launch its own mobile network, learning from the success of Reliance Jio in India. The idea to attract subscribers was to offer six months of data and voice services for free, though this idea was killed off due to two developments.

The first development was the merger between Vodafone and TPG. Why would it build its own mobile network when it could dovetail with Vodafone, bringing its own fixed network to the party to complete the convergence dream.

The second development was the banning of Huawei technology in Australia.

“It is extremely disappointing that the clear strategy the company had to become a mobile network operator at the forefront of 5G has been undone by factors outside of TPG’s control,” TPG Executive Chairman David Teoh said at the time.

Following the decision, TPG decided against building its own mobile network as Huawei was the main supplier to the firm. This is an instance which backs up the Huawei claims it will improve competition in the 5G vendor ecosystem, bringing down the price of equipment investment and speed of deployment.

The decision to end TPG investment in a mobile network might have been enough to convince the ACCC the merger could be approved, but it seems the competition watchdog is clinging onto the hope it would do so on its own. TPG statements should be taken with a pinch of salt, it wouldn’t be the first-time executives changed their minds, but it does run the risk of negatively impacting competition.

One thing which is not healthy for any market is a tiered ranking system. If Vodafone cannot compete with Optus and Telstra without the converged business model the TPG assets offer, it might well fall further behind. If it dwindles to the point of irrelevance, the Australian telco market will be in a worse position than it is today, or with the combined Vodafone/TPG company offering increased competition. The risk the ACCC runs is effectively creating a duopoly.

Realistically, there is no right or wrong answer here. We do not have a crystal ball, and we cannot read the minds of TPG executives. It might well pursue the deployment of a mobile network if the prospect of a merger is killed off all together, but then again, it might just double-down on fixed line investments. It does currently have an MVNO, but that is a poor substitution for a fourth MNO to increase competition.

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