News, views and commentary from the telecoms sector across emerging markets and developing countries worldwide

Friday, 20 February 2009

Protectionism and unfair competition in Europe's mobile markets?

As someone used to spending a busy week doing business at the Mobile World Congress, I have spent a little time this week wondering what opportunities I might be missing by not attending this year. Given that I am writing this on a pleasant South Florida morning, looking out at a swimming pool, a line of trees and the St. Lucie River beyond them, it might seem odd that I would spend even a second missing the harsh lighting and the long slog around Barcelona's Fira. Two reports from Spain, however, seem to vindicate my decision to use this short hiatus between one job and another to enjoy a family holiday.

The first comes from Dean Bubley of Disruptive Wireless. Dean highlights a few things he's taking away from this year's MWC, of which I was most interested in the idea of "CTO-to-CFO friction" within mobile operators resulting in revived HSPA+ plans and LTE deployment timelines "being pushed out a bit". Dean also reports detecting less overall pessimism about the economy than he had expected but wonders if that might be "because the real doom-mongers all had their travel expenses cut this year." Interesting though these observations are, the part which made me feel really good about taking a vacation during the cellular sector's annual get-together was Dean awarding a "villains of the year" gong to "the GSMA Stasi demanding photo ID to get into the Fira precincts in the morning." While I daresay I will throw myself back into the MWC fray again in 2010, this is the kind of thing I don't miss.

The other MWC report reaching me here in sunny Palm City, Fla. is the ever-amusing Week in Wireless, penned by the mysterious 'Informer' who observes that attendance was noticeably down on previous years. The Informer’s straw poll of a score or so of exhibitors puts the contraction at an estimated 20-25 per cent. The Informer was intrigued to notice that this year there was no sign of exhibition staff scanning badges at hall entrances, something which has been done in recent years to gauge footfall. The Informer wonders if this was a cost-cutting exercise and reserves judgement about the suggestion made by "one naughty cynic" that not measuring traffic in the exhibition halls simply removes any obligation on the part of the GSMA to report exact figures to exhibitors "in a year where those figures might not have encouraged onsite rebooking." The Informer is quite right to label this a cynical suggestion.

This stuff, as the Informer says, is for the conspiriacy theorists. More important than this, the Informer feels that there was also a lot less news than in years past. This is what makes me feel OK about missing out this time. I daresay the next time I attend the old buzz I know and love will be back.

In my most recent post, I was reflecting on the large population of Polish migrant workers in the UK, something which came up in the context of discussing mobile international money remittance services worldwide. The Informer reports remarks made in Barcelona this week by Chris Bannister, CEO of P4/Play, Poland's newest mobile operator, which has been in business for around two years. Mindful of the significance of this large Polish presence in the UK for his international business, Bannister complained about the serious problems caused by failing to get a roaming agreement with Telefónica-owned O2 UK until only three months ago.

According to the Informer, Bannister also has to contend with mobile number portability taking a whopping 51 days in Poland. The Play CEO says that 15% of his subscribers are former customers of the operator's longer-established rivals. Bannister suggests this figure could double if more effective MNP was introduced. The Informer writes that "the incumbent players, Vodafone (Polkomtel), Orange and T-Mobile (PTC), have no interest in seeing this happen", according to Bannister, who also discussed data roaming rates: he can get Eur 3.75 from T-Mobile (I assume this means T-Mobile Germany) whereas E-Plus will do it for Eur 0.25.

Play is one of the core members of the Mobile Challengers Group, an alliance of third and fourth placed competitors in various European cellular markets. The aim of the group is to challenge the competitive environment of the European mobile industry. One of this association's stated intentions is to create a level playing field for all operators and to provide greater choice and better conditions for consumers.

The Informer writes that five CEOs from the Mobile Challengers Group were on hand in Barcelona to raise their grievances about what they see as the protectionist activities of incumbent carriers. The Informer feels that "the existence of this group reflects the power structure of the GSMA, which is controlled by the largest players" and was told by one employee of one of the member companies, when asked about the Mobile Challengers Group's relations with the GSMA: "they hate us."

The Informer observes that "some might view the challengers’ complaints as sour grapes from carriers that lack the scale to compete with more successful players", but feels that 51 days for MNP in Poland and Mr. Bannister's reported discrepancy in wholesale roaming rates does indeed smack of protectionism.

In addition to all of this, I noticed a few WiMAX stories emanating from Barcelona, some of which have a bearing on the question of how far that technology is set to succeed in emerging markets. I will turn my attention to that next time. For now, I really should get on with enjoying my holiday.

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