a week in wireless

When in roam

European mobile operators are big boys and can look after themselves, but sometimes the Informer can’t help feeling for them as they strive to fend off attacks from Silicon Valley OTT giants like Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook, while being constantly hamstrung by their own side.

By its modest standards it’s been a busy week for the mega-bureaucracy that is the European Commission. The continent’s mobile operators are no strangers to the whims of the commission, which in its endless quest to convince the European people their taxes are best spent on its own marathon lunches, periodically focuses its attention on the telco sector.

Like plucky Hobbits fleeing Sauron’s malign gaze across the hostile terrain of Mordor, European operators try desperately to whistle nonchalantly and keep a low profile as they go about their business, lest the Lord of the Ringtones (sorry) set his horde upon them. Their efforts are futile, of course, the EC sees all.

After a solitary year of deliberation, the EC decided Spain’s Telefónica was allowed to buy Dutch-owned German operator E-Plus, via its own Germany subsidiary O2. But like the benign parent it seems to think it is, the Commission won’t let Telefónica and E-Plus go out to play unsupervised.

“Now E-Plus is only little, so be kind Telefónica,” the EC seemed to say. “And make sure you share some of your nice network capacity with those less fortunate than you, like that MVNO family down the road that’s always arguing and leaving old sofas in their front garden.”

Telefónica is entitled to feel especially aggrieved since only a day later the EC let big British bully Vodafone buy Spanish cable provider Ono without any strings attached whatsoever. It’s almost like Vodafone is the feral child its parents have given up on and don’t really care what it gets up to so long as it’s not in the house causing a scene.

But the EC’s signature piece of meddling this week was the implementation of its latest round of roaming caps. This annual victimisation of European operators, timed to coincide with the start of summer holiday season, is the gift that keeps on giving for the EC. Just in time to vote itself a well-earned break to go camping in Provence until the Autumn, the Commission issues a press release that reads more like an advert for one of those sales perpetually run by cheap furniture shops.

“Crazy prices at Roaming World this summer! Making a call – axed. Sending a text message – maimed. Downloading data – obliterated!! Our prices are so low, we don’t know how operators make any money. But that’s their problem – see you in a couple of months.”

The mere reduction of the cost of data roaming by an order of 25 since 2010 is still just an hors d’oeuvre for people’s champion and compulsive tweeter @NeelieKroesEU. “This huge drop in data roaming prices will make a big difference to all of us this summer,” she gloated. “But it is not enough. Why should we have roaming charges at all in a single market? By the end of this year I hope we see the complete end of roaming charges agreed – the Parliament has done their part, now it is up to Member States to seal the deal!”

Once person’s challenge is another’s opportunity, of course, and there were no shortage of top tips coming the broader telecoms world. KPMG’s Sean Kennedy anticipates a Pyrrhic victory for consumers, noting “their delight could well turn to frustration in years to come as, with fewer funds available, operators may struggle to improve infrastructure across Europe.” Raphael Glatt of BICS reckons operators should just pull their socks up as “…there are still plenty of opportunities for service providers and MNOs to monetise the service by providing tiered packages and value added services for incoming and outgoing roamers.”

This advice was echoed by Mark Windle of OpenCloud. “If they want to just become bit-pipe providers, then carry-on,” he warned.  “If, however, the operators want to continue to be regarded as the gold-standard for communication services then they need to start innovating and they need to do it fast.” But arguably Windle’s proudest contribution to the debate was the title of his opinion piece, which the Informer shamelessly stole for the headline of this week’s column.

Take care.

The Informer

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