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Deep dive: what’s the deal with network sharing?

Information is only as useful as the context you place it in, and for that reason Telecoms.com periodically provides deep dives into industry-defining topics. In this one Jamie Davies explores the opportunities and challenges surrounding network sharing.

Each year brings different trends and talking points to the forefront of the industry, and 2020 is no different. This year, it appears network sharing will be one of the biggest talking points.

5G is on the horizon and it has the telcos scrambling. Upgrading telecoms infrastructure is going to be a very expensive job, ranging from fibering up a nation, to purchasing active infrastructure for sites and even paying for civil engineering jobs; building passive infrastructure is not cheap! Telcos need a way to make the financials of the telecoms future work.

All about the money, money, money

While it might not sound like the sexiest of trends to be assessing, it could turn out to be one of the most impactful. Telcos are scrapping and scraping around to fuel the 5G euphoria which has gripped the industry, and any option to do it more cost effectively would be lovingly embraced.

“Network sharing will be vital to mobile operators still grappling with ways to make the economics of 5G add up,” said Kester Mann of CCS Insight. “Deutsche Telekom for example has projected that the cost to deploy 5G across Europe would come out at between €300 and €500 billion.

“It’s no surprise then to see a growing list of operators partnering with each other in a bid to keep a lid on 5G capex. But these deals may just be the tip of the iceberg; investment models probably need to evolve to become more creative and innovative in the long run. For example, Poland has been considering plans for a single national 5G network at 700MHz. And it would be no surprise to see a European city take the plunge and deploy all 5G mobile infrastructure through a third party.”

Back in October, during a Madrid 5G core conference, Telecom Italia’s Lucy Lombardi outlined the difficulties being faced by the operators. Between 2010 and 2018, Lombardi suggested industry revenues were down $27 billion, but the telcos had invested $250 million in the network. Over 2019-2025, Lombardi suggested another $1.4 trillion would be spend by the industry, 70% of which would be on deploying 5G.

In short, the old ways of telecommunications are not going to cut it in the digital world of tomorrow. There are plenty of opportunities for the telcos to make money as everything and anything gets connected to the internet, but new business models need to be created to ensure these companies do not go bust in the pursuit of profits.

As Mann highlights, various different countries and regulators are pursuing different approaches to create value and efficiencies in the deployment of next-generation communications infrastructure. The Poland example is an excellent one, though the UK is pushing forward with its own innovative approach.

“In the UK, the recent confirmation of plans to introduce a shared rural network is rare example of successful collaboration between mobile operators more often engaged in cut-throat competition to attract and retain subscribers,” Mann continued.

“It aims to curb costs and accelerate timelines to bring more people on online who live in remote areas. It will also help overcome the perennial challenge of tough planning and access restrictions that has hindered network roll-out in the past.”

The UK Shared Rural Network could be described as both an innovative initiative and a business compromise.

As part of the initiative, £530 million will be contributed by the telcos with another £500 million being put forward by the UK Government. The plan will include reciprocal agreements between the telcos to share existing infrastructure and also joint investments to build telco-neutral sites for total not-spots.

This is an innovative approach to deliver connectivity to the most difficult to reach places in the UK, but it is also a compromise. To secure agreement from the telcos for the Shared Rural Network, the Government and the regulator will have to agree to drop the deeply unpopular coverage commitments attached to the 700 MHz and 3.6-3.8 GHz spectrum auctions.

However, what is worth noting is this is not necessarily a new idea. EE (or what was T-Mobile at the time) and Three formed MBNL in 2007, initially to operate and deliver 3G networks, while O2 and Vodafone teamed ahead of the 4G rollout to form CTIL in 2012. Both of these organisations offer financial benefits to the telcos.

“From a cash perspective it’s broadly 50/50 on the usual operating expenditures – so site rental, rates, field operations, etc. We then have the option of sharing the build of networks – we don’t do that for 4G or 5G, but we did that in the 3G build and that saved 50% of the initial capital expenditure, including on capacity and transmission costs by usage,” said Tom Bennett, Networks Director at EE

We’re not alone…

Elsewhere around the world, regulators have taken their own approach to encourage cooperation in the industry. In Malaysia, for example, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has outlined another unique approach.

Licenses for the 700 MHz and 3.5 GHz spectrum bands will be given to a consortium rather than the individual telcos. Investment in infrastructure will be shared, as will the spectrum resources to deliver commercial services, though it is unclear how the telcos will play with each other.

For Malaysia, this is an important initiative. 5G is an expensive technology to deploy, but the regulator is also keeping an eye on 4G. In Western markets 4G investments are not front of mind as coverage is wide and deep, however in countries like Malaysia, the digital divide is a lot more apparent. 4G investments need to continue, and this approach to shared infrastructure is partly to ensure enough money is still directed towards 4G.

However, what is also worth noting is that not it is not a given regulators will be accepting of shared network initiatives.

Earlier this month, the Belgian Competition Authority (BCA) put the brakes on a joint-venture between Orange and Proximus which would create a shared network. The regulator is investigating whether this would negatively impact competition, after Telenet complained over the tie-up.

The issue in Belgium seems to be focused on the number of telcos which are currently present and the breadth of the agreement between the pair. As there are only three mobile players in the market, and the JV would span across all generations from 2G to 5G, the complaint focuses on the idea that it would reduce the number of infrastructure players from three to two. This might have an impact on deployment, as well as placing an unreasonable stranglehold on Telenet.

This is not the first time this issue has been raised either.

Last August, the European Commission informed O2 CZ and T-Mobile CZ that the proposed network sharing agreement in Czech Republic would breach the Commission’s rules on competition. The duo have been in a network sharing agreement since 2011, which incorporating 2G, 3G and 4G for 85% of the country, though the European Commission has now prevented this expanding further.

As is the case in Belgium, the Czech Republic only has three material telcos investing in mobile communications infrastructure. Although there are benefits for scale deployment, the European Commission suggested:

“…the network sharing agreement is likely to remove the incentives for the two mobile operators to improve their networks and services to the benefit of users.”

The European Commission and national regulators are generally open to ideas on how the telecommunications industry can be more efficient, though they are particularly sensitive to competition. Anything which would hint at removing competition would be quashed almost immediately, which is the tricky path which telcos tread. This is particularly notable in markets where there are only three operators, and one has been left out of the network sharing agreement.

Looking at the rules in question at a European level, Article 101 dictates the state of play. These rules effectively look to prevent:

  • Price fixing
  • Production, development or investment limitations
  • Supply scarcity
  • Placing a competitive disadvantage on other parties

The maintenance of a fair and reasonable market is of course a noble pursuit, but the European Commission and national regulators do have to be careful in applying these rules. The telcos do need to apply new models to ensure the feasibility of the 5G business model.

Consolidation is still the enemy

“Regulators will clearly be vigilant, as they want to make sure that sharing does not turn into mobile-to-mobile consolidation, which they don’t like,” said Dario Talmesio, 5G Practice Leader at analyst firm Ovum.

“They could see that sharing can be consolidation through the backdoor.”

The European Commission and its regulators are very sensitive to consolidation. Despite the industry begging for attitudes to change in the pursuit of scale economics to ease the burden of deployment, the regulators have stood their ground to refuse consolidation. The attempted merger between O2 and Three in the UK during 2016 was blocked on the grounds of competition, as was an effort by Telia and Telenor to merge their Danish businesses in 2015.

The rationale for both of these mergers was to create a single-entity where the economics of running a telco at scale were more attractive. As Talmesio points out, network sharing initiatives are very important to ensure the industry progresses in a manner which keeps pace with the consumer and enterprise.

“CSPs have for very long been sharing some elements of their networks, and every G has pushed them to share a bit more, mainly because of the cost and time it would take to build new sites,” said Talmesio.

While it will never be the case that the network is finished, the widespread upgrades which are demanding with every new ‘G’ is what makes the telco industry unique and eye-wateringly expensive to play in. This is where the economics of scale are critically important and why European telcos are perhaps on the backfoot.

European nations are small, and some are drastically smaller than say China or the US. While larger countries present their own challenges in terms of coverage, the benefit of a scaled subscriber base gives more confidence to make bigger investments. Some European telcos will never have this advantage so will have to look for alternative means to fund network deployment.

Although the estimates vary quite considerably, one thing is for certain; network sharing initiatives ease the financial burden of network deployment.

There are of course financial benefits to network sharing, though the estimates do vary. A report from the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) suggests the following:

  • Passive sharing cost saving of 16-35% on CAPEX and 16-35% for OPEX
  • Active sharing cost saving 33-35% on CAPEX and 25-33% for OPEX

Efficiencies are increased when spectrum costs are also shared, though this is unlikely to be a common practice as spectrum assets are often considered a differentiator. If this was to be removed, the industry would start the precarious walk towards utilitisation.

Looking at the proposed joint-venture between Orange and Proximus, the duo will of course be saving money, but another interesting opportunity is in scaling the network. The shared network initiative would increase coverage by 20% in comparison to the combined footprint if the teams are to pursue network deployment independently. We suspect 20% is a comfortable number, and this could be increased should a partnership want to deploy more aggressively.

The financials of the telecoms industry is not working in conjunction with the demands of the consumer and authorities. Cheaper tariffs, faster speeds, greater coverage, better reliability. All of these factors weigh one side of the equation making it difficult for the telcos to continue.

Another factor to build the case for network sharing initiatives is somewhat more bureaucratic.

Telcos are being asked to improve both outdoor and indoor coverage in both the rural and urban environments, but in some cases the biggest problems can be accessing or procuring new sites to deploy infrastructure, both passive and active. It might make sense to share these sites as there is limited availability, or it would at least make more sense to share the transmission lines to ease the burden of civil engineering costs. Another factor you have to consider is the rental fees charged by landowners, some of which are deemed unnecessarily high by the telcos. This has been frequently highlighted under the term ‘ransom rent’ as the telcos have little option if they are to expand coverage.

In some towns there is another bureaucratic nightmare to consider; listed and historical buildings. In Cambridge, UK, for example, so many of the structures are deemed historical or protected, the number of potential mobile cell sites is substantially smaller; share infrastructure is a creative solution.

Its not all plain sailing

What is worth noting is that there are also drawbacks to network sharing agreements.

Firstly, more cooks spoil the broth. With shared assets in operation, especially active assets, require consent and coordination between the sharing parties. There are numerous challenges here, most notably aligning commercial objectives of the parties and more signatures to acquire. Evolution of these sites could certainly take longer in the future.

Another challenge arises when something goes wrong. Debugging the issues could be much more complicated, though this is entirely dependent on how much the two operations are entwined.

BEREC has also noted shared networks could also increase the electromagnetic field emissions. Each regulator imposes limitations on electromagnetic field emissions therefore bureaucratic revision might well be needed should more of these initiatives bear fruit.

The combination of or joint-funding of assets also decreases the resilience of communications infrastructure in a country. Fewer independent mobile networks or infrastructure might well make a country more vulnerable as it reduces the number of points of failure and robustness.

It is also worth bearing in mind that there is only so much space available on masts for active equipment. These concerns were raised in Bulgaria, Cyprus and Croatia, amongst other nations. Networking planning is another concern, as each MNO has its own unique requirements, while technical issues in relation to existing suppliers and protocols could mean MNOs are not compatible with each other.

It would be unfair to suggest network sharing is an uncomplicated path forward.

Despite there being momentum for network sharing, not all of the regulators share the enthusiasm. Aside from Belgian scepticism, Hungary believes non-participating MNOs would face a risk of being squeezed out of the market, while Austria has suggested incentives for investment will decrease in the long term.

There will be pros and cons on both sides of the equation, but it does look to be the fairest and most reasonable compromise to ensure a healthy and sustainable telecommunications industry. The traditional way of deploying networks does not look to be financially feasible, therefore new ideas are needed.

Network sharing is one of the most prominent trends during the early days of 2020 for good reason, and it is safe to assume more of these initiatives will emerge as we progress through the year.


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