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US is a more attractive investment than Europe – DT CEO

Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Höttges is always a colourful character, but he hasn’t held back in brutally condemning Europe as we enter the digital age.

“I have 50%, 50% businesses in Europe and the US,” said Höttges at the FT-ETNO Conference in Brussels. “I would love to invest patriotically, but it is better to invest in the US. They want 5G for every citizen as soon as possible, they are bringing a lot of spectrum to the market.”

Europe is a market which has grand ambitions for the digital age, but it is struggling to keep pace with the likes of the US, China and Korea. As it stands, some could argue there is parity for control of digital economy, but it is questionable as to whether this will be the case moving forward.

“I would like to say the future is Europe, but I can’t, at least not unconditionally,” said Höttges.

Governments and regulators are demanding rapid deployment of infrastructure, but consolidation is the dirtiest of words. Scale is critical, but no assistance is being offered. There are positive noises about spectrum harmonisation, but fragmentation is rife. This valuable asset is becoming increasingly expensive with every passing auction. And the legal framework for digital services does not line-up between the telcos and the cloud players.

This is of course yet another example of a telco moaning about regulation, but if the moaning leads to investment being directed elsewhere regulators cannot ignore it for much longer. Höttges is a very honest CEO and today saw a statement which should seriously worry authorities across the continent.

Investors demand DT invests in areas which return the greatest profits, Höttges has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure this is the case. If the US landscape is more likely to generate the required returns, this is where the company will drive investment.

“I invest where I see the biggest opportunity,” Höttges stated.

US authorities and consumers will be thrilled to hear such proclamations. Over the course of 2018, DT investments totalled more than €12.2 billion worldwide. If the US is creating a more investment friendly landscape, regulators are arguably doing their job. This means more money being pumped into T-Mobile US, a company which is already forcing the hands of rivals with disruptive strategies. More money could mean more disruption. Theoretically, this will only benefit the US telecoms industry.

What is worth noting is that DT is not alone in its criticism. Telecom Italia Chairman Salvatore Rossi suggested there has not been enough attention paid to industrial policy. Altice Portugal CEO Alexandre Fonseca complained about market consolidation resistance from authorities when the fourth player accounts for less than 3% market share. Telefonica Chief Finance and Control Officer Laura Abasolo bemoaned shifting regulations; inconsistency is the enemy of investment after all.

These are only a few of the frustrations which were aired today. Some very senior people said some very condemning things, but this is of course not new.

Telcos will always complain about regulation. From their perspective, there are always too many rules, never enough subsidies and spectrum is consistently too expensive. The majority of the time these companies are trying to get more for less, profit is the ultimate goal after all, but occasionally you have to listen to the moaning. The outcome is arguably more important than the process, and this outcome is not beneficial for Europe or DT’s customers.

If investment is being directed elsewhere because the regulatory framework is not working for the continent’s largest telco, the dynamic needs to change, and change quickly.

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