EU confirms ‘single telecoms market’ policy

In response to questions from, the European Commission (EC) confirmed its desire for the bloc to have a single telecoms market.

There had been rumours emanating from a recent interview Margrethe Vestager (pictured) did with Italian media that she is in favour of the European (i.e. EU) mobile telecoms market being completely unified and thus, it was inferred, only open to the big trans-national providers. Vestager is European Commissioner for both competition and the digital market, and thus one of the most powerful people in Europe when it comes to the telecoms market.

We had been unable to substantiate those rumours, so emailed the EC to ask for clarification, both on the single market concept and on the likelihood that would mean significant operator consolidation, something the EC seems to have been opposed to in the past.

“As always, we assess transactions on a case-by-case basis,” replied an EC spokesperson. “There is no magic number of operators per country. This means we should balance anti-competitive effects of lesser competition with potential efficiencies. In the current context of rising inflation, access to affordable telecommunication services is all the more important for European consumers. It is crucial that the burden of financing investments is fairly distributed.

“But the debate on scale and on fast roll-out of mobile networks in Europe is an important one. It raises several questions about what drives roll-out and how should roll-out be financed. It reminds us that Europe needs truly pan-European telecom players and a single telecoms market.”

That last bit seems pretty unambiguous to us; the EC favours the bigger players and a single mobile market. Precisely what that market would look like is unclear but the most obvious interpretation is that the EC wants a subscription with, say, Orange in France to apply seamlessly in Spain and other markets Orange operates in. This would be a step further than the current rules that prevent operators charging a premium for roaming, but those would presumably still apply when travelling to an EU country not served by a subscriber’s domestic provider.

The tone of the response implies this has been EU policy (which the EC largely determines and executes) for some time. But if that’s the case, it has kept pretty quiet about it. Not that’s it’s surprising, however, given the overall evolution of the bloc towards greater harmonisation and centralisation, but you’d think a major policy initiative like that would have been more formally declared.

While the UK is no longer under jurisdiction of the EU, a single European mobile market would have implications for all its MNOs. Vodafone has operations in several European countries, as does Telefonica, the owner of O2. BT-owned EE, however, doesn’t, and it would be interesting to see whether CK Hutchison, which owns Three, would count as a ‘truly pan-European telecom player’. Lastly, the reply suggests the EC may be more sympathetic towards consolidation moves, especially if they mean the acquisition of smaller, national operators.


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