DoJ antitrust chief readies for battle against big tech

There have been plenty of whispers in the back alleys of Silicon Valley of the antitrust boogeyman and now the nightmares are turning into reality.

Speaking at an industry conference in Israel, Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim outlined his views on competitiveness in the technology industry. Those who were anticipating an antitrust battle in the US can feel suitably vindicated, as Delrahim effectively confirms he has Google and Apple firmly in the crosshairs.

“The digital economy is a fact of life, but it is not all things to all people,” said Delrahim. “There has been robust public discussion about whether the broader economy, undoubtedly transformed by digital technologies, is working well for everyone.”

Although this is not necessarily shocking news, it is a nuanced confirmation of the up-coming assault against big tech.

Last week, the US took the first tentative steps towards addressing the influence of technology on today’s society. The House Antitrust Subcommittee announced the launch of a bipartisan investigation into competition in digital markets, potentially offering a threat to solid foundation of the technology giants. Diluting the dominance of big tech is going to be a very difficult task, but it does appear the groundwork is being laid.

In this speech, Delrahim is effectively outlining the Department of Justice’s plan, as well as the justification for tackling big tech.

“Where there are credible concerns that a transaction or business practice is anticompetitive, timely and effective antitrust enforcement is imperative,” said Delrahim.

“…After all, the government’s successful antitrust case against Microsoft arguably paved the way for companies like Google, Yahoo, and Apple to enter the market with their own desktop and mobile products.”

Microsoft’s dominance of the technology world in the 90s should not be underplayed and perhaps can be very accurately likened to Google’s influence today. Although the US Government was not successful in breaking-up Microsoft as an organization, it did manage to dilute its power and broaden the spread of wealth. When a company starts to dictate play in the way Microsoft did, the US Government starts to get a bit twitchy.

This is the issue which the likes of Google, Amazon and Apple are facing today. Such is the success of the business, through the creation of best-in-class products and strategic acquisitions to stutter the progress of competitors, the fortunes of the technology industry are incredibly concentrated. This is what Delrahim and his colleagues want to address.

Specifics are often lost in such conference speeches, but an interesting point raised by Delrahim focused on “network effects”. In short, an organization has such control over the supporting ecosystem competition is suffocated before it has any genuine chance to be competitive. Perhaps this is done through acquiring nascent competitors or manipulating the ecosystem.

Although there have been some hints of strategy from Delrahim, the specifics are still evading the industry. That said, it is becoming increasingly clear that the US Government wants to dilute the power and influence of big tech.

Vodafone Germany tries to placate regulators via wholesale cable deal with Telefónica

Telefónica Deutschland will be able to sell services that run on the combined Vodafone and Unitymedia cable network in Germany, as a remedy measure taken by Vodafone to satisfy EU’s competition concern over its proposed acquisition of Liberty Global.

The two companies announced that they have entered into a definite “cable wholesale agreement” in Germany, whereby Telefónica Deutschland will offer its customers broadband services that use both the Vodafone fixed network and that of Unitymedia. The combined networks cover 23.7 million households and represent a significant upgrade to whatever Telefónica Deutschland customers are currently getting.

“The cable agreement will enable us to connect millions of additional households in Germany with high-speed internet in the future,” said Markus Haas, CEO of Telefónica Deutschland. “By adding fast cable connections, we now have access to an extensive infrastructure portfolio and can offer to even more O2 customers attractive broadband products – including internet-based TV with O2 TV – for better value for money.”

Vodafone’s plan to acquire Liberty Global in Germany (where it trades under the brand Unitymedia), the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania, has run into difficulty at the European Union, which raised competition concerns at the end of last year. The Commission was particularly worried that the combined business would deprive the consumers in Germany of access to high speed internet access, and the OTT services carried over it. Vodafone expressed its confidence that it would be able to satisfy the Commission’s demand. Opening its fixed internet access to its competitor is clearly one of the remedies. Also included in the remedy package Vodafone submitted to the Commission was its commitment to ensure sufficient capacity is available for OTT TV distribution.

“Our deal with Liberty Global is transformational in many ways. It is a significant step towards a Gigabit society, which will enable consumers & businesses to access the world of content & digital services at high speeds. It also creates a converged national challenger in four important European countries, bringing innovation & greater choice,” said Nick Read, CEO of Vodafone Group. “We are very pleased to announce today our cable wholesale access agreement with Telefonica DE, enabling them to bring faster broadband speeds to their customers and further enhancing infrastructure competition across Germany.”

Vodafone believed the remedial measures it put in place should sufficiently reassure the Commission that competitions will not suffer after its acquisition of Liberty Global. The company now expects the Commission to undertake market testing of the remedy package it submitted, and to give the greenlight to the acquisition deal covering the four countries by July 2019. It plans to complete the transaction by the end of July. The merger between Vodafone’s and Liberty Global’s operation in The Netherlands was approved by the EU in 2016.

Apple under more antitrust scrutiny in Europe

The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) has launched an investigation into whether Apple is abusing its power through the App Store, favouring its own apps over rivals.

The Dutch regulator has reported back after receiving several complaints regarding Apple’s behaviour surrounding the App Store, suggesting there might be some foul play afoot. The initial foray has led the ACM into a larger investigation to understand whether Apple, and Google for that matter, are abusing dominant positions in the app economy to drive more favourable positions for their own apps and services.

“To a large degree, app providers depend on Apple and Google for offering apps to users. In the market study, ACM has received indications from app providers, which seem to indicate that Apple abuses its position in the App Store,” said Henk Don, an ACM board member. “That is why ACM sees sufficient reason for launching a follow-up investigation, on the basis of competition law.”

The news will not be welcomed by Apple, which is also under investigation at European level following disagreement with music streaming app Spotify. Spotify is suggesting Apple deliberately disadvantages other app developers, and while the complaint lodged with the European Commission is confidential, it has created a website listed the five ways Apple does not play fair in the app economy:

  1. The 30% fee which is applied to in-app purchases
  2. Apple won’t allow developers to communicate deals and promotions directly to customers
  3. Users cannot upgrade to premium services in app
  4. Apple rejects app enhancements for unknown reasons
  5. Spotify cannot be installed on all devices in the Apple portfolio

Some of the reasons might sounds a little moany but Apple does not seem to be laying the same rules on its own apps and services. For example, Spotify cannot be played on the Homepod, but iTunes can. This point might be of interest to the Dutch authorities.

While the original complaints received by the Dutch regulator have mainly been directed towards Apple and the App Store, the ACM also notes the dominant position Google is currently in for the Android app ecosystem. This investigation will be wide enough to assess the position of both companies and their knock-on activities in the developing ecosystem.

The initial investigation, which the ACM admits has not been in-depth enough, has uncovered some worrying elements of the business, we can’t imagine it will be difficult to dig up much more dirt on the pair.

Although both the App Store and Play Store are critical gateways in connecting developers to millions of consumers, that doesn’t mean developers need to be happy about the terms. Many are becoming increasingly frustrated with conditions, notably the 30% commission, with the larger developers looking to avoid working with the pair entirely.

There are few titles which have the brand recognition to achieve success without the reach of the App Store or Play Store, but Fortnite is one. Last August, Fortnite announced it would only offer downloads through its own website as opposed to the app stores. Estimates suggest it would save the firm $50 million in commission paid to Apple and Google.

The ACM has been keen to point out it has not come to a conclusion, despite some worrying findings in the initial investigation, and it may well find no antitrust violations. Despite pleas of impartiality, Apple and Google should certainly be worried; Europe has been pretty hot on antitrust cases recently.

Europe fines Google another €1.5 billion after belated Android concession

US search giant Google has received yet another fine from the European Commission, this time for abusing its dominant position in online advertising.

Specifically this ruling refers to ads served against Google search results embedded in third party websites. The EC doesn’t like the way Google used to go about this and, having reviewed loads of historical contracts between Google and these other websites, found the following:

  • Starting in 2006, Google included exclusivity clauses in its contracts. This meant that publishers were prohibited from placing any search adverts from competitors on their search results pages. The decision concerns publishers whose agreements with Google required such exclusivity for all their websites.
  • As of March 2009, Google gradually began replacing the exclusivity clauses with so-called “Premium Placement” clauses. These required publishers to reserve the most profitable space on their search results pages for Google’s adverts and request a minimum number of Google adverts. As a result, Google’s competitors were prevented from placing their search adverts in the most visible and clicked on parts of the websites’ search results pages.
  • As of March 2009, Google also included clauses requiring publishers to seek written approval from Google before making changes to the way in which any rival adverts were displayed. This meant that Google could control how attractive, and therefore clicked on, competing search adverts could be.

EC google ad graphic

Taken at face value this would appear to be a clear abuse of Google’s dominant position and it seems to have got off pretty lightly, since it got a much bigger fine for abusing Android’s dominant position last year, on which more below. The EC has been pretty consistent in its position on dominant US tech players deliberately seeking to restrict competition, just ask Microsoft and Intel, so none of this can have come as a surprise to Google.

“Today the Commission has fined Google €1.49 billion for illegal misuse of its dominant position in the market for the brokering of online search adverts,” said Commissioner in charge of competition policy Margrethe Vestager. “Google has cemented its dominance in online search adverts and shielded itself from competitive pressure by imposing anti-competitive contractual restrictions on third-party websites. This is illegal under EU antitrust rules. The misconduct lasted over 10 years and denied other companies the possibility to compete on the merits and to innovate – and consumers the benefits of competition.”

As the quote indicates, Google isn’t doing this anymore, but only packed it in once the EC flagged it up in 2016, so that’s still a decade of naughtiness. For some reason Google also chose today to show some belated contrition for one of the things it got fined for last year: forcing Android OEMs to preinstall Google Search and the Chrome browser.

In a blog post amusingly entitled Supporting choice and competition in Europe, Google SVP of Global Affairs Kent Walker started by stressing there’s nothing he loves more than healthy, thriving markets. Having said that he went on to make it clear that its most recent move to improve competition was taken solely to get the EC off its back.

“After the Commission’s July 2018 decision, we changed the licensing model for the Google apps we build for use on Android phones, creating new, separate licenses for Google Play, the Google Chrome browser, and for Google Search,” wrote Walker. “In doing so, we maintained the freedom for phone makers to install any alternative app alongside a Google app.

“Now we’ll also do more to ensure that Android phone owners know about the wide choice of browsers and search engines available to download to their phones. This will involve asking users of existing and new Android devices in Europe which browser and search apps they would like to use.”

How touching. Presumably today was some kind of deadline for Google to comply or else. The matter of browser choice is highly reminiscent of Europe’s case against Microsoft for bundling Internet Explorer with Windows. The prime beneficiary of that was, you guessed it, Google, which now accounts for around two thirds of European desktop browser share (see chart), achieved through merit rather than cheating. How sad then, so see history repeating itself on mobile.

So that takes the total amount Europe has fined Google to €8.25 billion. In response to a question after her announcement (below) Vestager revealed the EC has some kind of fine ceiling of 10% of annual revenues so, since Google brought in around €120 billion last year that still leaves plenty of room for further fines if Google keeps getting funny ideas. Incidentally she also revealed that the fines get distributed to member countries, not trousered by the EC itself, which is reassuring.

Source: StatCounter Global Stats – Browser Market Share

Europe cools internet monopoly rhetoric

Almost every politician around the world is currently using Silicon Valley as a metaphoric punching bag, but the European Commission will not be drawn into the monopolies debate.

While 2020 Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has painted a target on the backs on the internet giants, Europe has once again proven it will not be drawn into making such short-sighted and shallow promises. Warren is effectively warming up for the world’s biggest popularity contest, and perhaps hasn’t considered the long-term realities of the dismantling of companies such as Facebook and Google.

Speaking at the South by Southwest festival in Austin (thank you Recode for the transcript), Margrethe Vestager, the European Commissioner for Competition, made a very reasonable and measured statement.

“We’re dealing with private property, businesses that are built and invested in and become successful because of their innovation,” said Vestager.

“So, to break up a company, to break up private property, would be very far-reaching. And you would need to have a very strong case that it would produce better results for consumers in the marketplace than what you could do with sort of more mainstream tools.”

Vestager’s point is simple. Don’t punish a company because of its success. Don’t make rash decisions unless there is evidence the outcome will be better than the status quo. While the fence is proving to be very comfortable, it is a logical place to sit now.

Following up with the European Commission press team, Telecoms.com was told the Commission does not have an official position when it comes to breaking up the internet monopolies. Vestager’s comments are representative of the Commission, and it will evaluate each case on its own merit. Effectively, the breaking up the monopolies is a last resort, and will only be done so in extreme circumstances.

This position is supported by a recent report, put together for HM Treasury in the UK by former Chief Economist to President Obama, Professor Jason Furman. Furman suggests new rules and departments need to be created for digital society, but monopolies, when regulated and governed appropriately, can be good for the progression of products, services and the economy overall.

This will of course be an unpopular opinion, but it makes sense. Sometimes there simply isn’t the wealth to share around. Monopolies are perhaps needed to create efficiencies and economies of scale to ensure progress is made at a suitable pace. However, the right regulatory framework needs to be in place to ensure this dominant position is not abused. A catch-all position should not be welcomed.

This is where the European Commission has been playing a notable role. Numerous times over the last few years, technology giants have been punished for creating and abusing dominant market positions, take Google as an example with Android antitrust violations last June, though it has not gone as far as breaking up these empires. The key here is creating a framework which encourages growth across the board but does not punish success.

Some would argue success in the pursuit of this delicately balanced equation has been incredibly varied, but this should not form the foundation of rash decisions and potential irreversible actions. Big is not necessarily bad.

This is the marquee promise of Senator Elizabeth Warren. In attempting to woo the green-eyed contradictory wannabee capitalists of Middle America, the Presidential contender has promised to split up the internet giants. The complexities and realities of this promise do not seem to have been thoroughly thought out, and it does seem to be a shallow attempt to lure the favour of those who seek fortunes but are unable to congratulate those who have found them.

That said, there are Presidential candidates who are suggesting good ideas. Senator Amy Klobuchar has suggested companies who monetize data through relationships with third-parties should be taxed. This is somewhat of a radical idea, but we do quite like the sound of it.

Firstly, for those companies who say they are collecting data to ‘improve customer experience’, there would be no impact. If the data is being used to enhance current or create new services, and therefore kept in-house, then fair enough. However, if the company is moving data around the digital ecosystem, monetizing personal information, why not place a levy on this type of activity. It might just encourage these companies to be more responsible when more scrutiny is being placed on these transactions.

This is the challenge we are all facing nowadays; the digital economy is a different beast and needs to be tamed using different techniques, regulations and practices. We all know this, but we haven’t actually figured out how to do it.

This is why we kind of like the non-committal, hands-off approach from the European Commission. For an organization which usually likes to run wild with the red-tape, this seems to be a much more sensible approach. Over regulating nowadays could create a patch-work from hell which would only have to be undone. It might seem like a cop-out, but governments should let business be business, while casting a watchful eye over developments.

When no-one really knows how the future is going to evolve, regulation is needed to hold companies accountable and protections are needed to safeguard the consumer. But rash decisions and ridiculous promises are the last thing anyone wants.

América Móvil strengthens its position in Brazil with Nextel acquisition

The Latin American mobile heavyweight América Móvil has agreed to acquire its competitor Nextel in the Brazilian market for $905 million.

Shortly after the deal was announced by América Móvil on Monday, and the board of NII Holdings, which owns 70% of Nextel, announced that it would propose to the shareholders to accept the offer. The other 30% of Nextel is owned by AI Brazil Holdings, the local operation of Access Industries, an American private company whose portfolio includes natural resources, telecoms, internet services, as well as Warner Music, among other media interests.

The nature of the deal, “cash free / debt free”, will let NII and AI Brazil keep all the cash while América Móvil will not assume Nextel’s debts. Although the total transaction value is less than 1.5 times of Nextel’s annual revenues in 2018 ($621 million), it represents almost four times NII’s market capitalisation on its latest trading day on NASDAQ ($229 million), indicating the buyer’s relatively strong confidence in the business prospect.

Brazil is a highly competitive market. According to research by Ovum, by Q4 2018, Vivo (owned by Telefónica) led with one third of the total mobile market, while TIM and Claro (América Móvil’s existing operation in Brazil) were vying for the second place, each serving about a quarter of the total mobile subscribers. Nextel had slightly over 1% market share. The rest of the market is served by Oi (a JV between Altice Portugal, formerly Portugal Telecom, and Telemar, Brazil’s largest integrated telecom operator).

After the acquisition, América Móvil plans to combine Nextel with Claro to “consolidate its position as one of the leading telecommunication service providers in Brazil, strengthening itsmobile network capacity, spectrum portfolio, subscriber base, coverage and quality, particularly in the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the main markets in Brazil.”

For NII, selling Nextel in Brazil represents the end of an era. The company once operated mobile services in multiple North and Latin American markets, including the eponymous professional radio service in the US, which was later acquired by Sprint. Brazil is its last operation, where it has been struggling in a classic four-operator market. Not only has it not been able to break into the leader group, but also seen business declining fast. The revenues in 2018 were a 29% decline from 2017 ($871 million), which itself was a 12% decline from 2016 ($985 million).

“The announcement of this transaction marks the culmination of an extensive multi-year process to pursue a strategic path for Nextel Brazil and provides our best opportunity to monetize our remaining operating assets in light of the competitive landscape in Brazil and long-term need to raise significant capital to fund business operations, debt service and capital expenditures necessary to remain competitive in the future,” said Dan Freiman, NII’s CFO. Earlier potential buyers included Telefónica Brasil, Access Industries (NII’s JV partner), though the most concrete case was TIM, which, according to Reuters, approved a non-binding offer in November last year. None of these negotiations has come to fruition.

“Management and our Board of Directors believe the transaction is in the best interest of NII’s stockholders,” Freiman added.

UK Government mulls new digital competition laws

An independent panel has submitted a new report to HM Treasury which recommends the formation of a new department to tackle anti-competition and the revamp of rules.

Led by former Chief Economist to President Obama, Professor Jason Furman, the lengthy report comes to a conclusion many are already aware of; today’s rules are not fit for purpose to effectively manage and govern the digital economy.

“The United Kingdom has an opportunity to seize the full potential of the digital sector, increasing the benefits for consumers and fostering an even more vibrant ecosystem for businesses,” the report states.

“Competition should be at the heart of this strategy, leading companies to produce better outcomes for consumers, helping new companies enter and grow, and continuing to encourage existing companies to innovate.”

In summing up the current landscape, the message is pretty clear. Furman and his team state the UK is currently reliant on rules and regulations designed for yesteryear. Considering how much society and the economy has evolved through the last decade, since the digital world has engulfed almost every aspect of our lives, rules have to keep pace to ensure fair and reasonable business practises are taking place, to offer benefit to the consumer.

The recommendation of change is based on several presumptions. Firstly, digital is good. It helps the consumer and lowers the barriers for entry for small businesses to be created and scaled. Secondly, most digital markets will be dominated by a single player. Third, there are advantages, low margins and profits can mean sometimes it is better to have a smaller number of providers. Fourth, companies cannot be trusted to self-regulate, and finally, government regulations have limitations.

These presumptions have been identified through months of research from the panel and while some might disagree with the statements, being realistic, they are fair and reasonable assumptions. Just because some will not like the outcome, does not mean it is not true. However, knowledge informs future decisions and these statements can inform more appropriate regulation in the future.

This is the problem which many governments are facing nowadays. They realise the world is changing, and rules have to change with them, but new clauses and considerations are being bolted onto regulations which have been designed for a by-gone era. It creates an incredibly complicated red tape maze, which is not help to anyone except those will well-enough paid lawyers to find the loopholes.

“This is why the Panel is recommending the establishment of a digital markets unit, given a remit to use tools and frameworks that will support greater competition and consumer choice in digital markets, and backed by new powers in legislation to ensure they are effective,” the report states.

Furman envisions this department to have three main responsibilities in the first instance. Firstly, the creation of a code of competitive conduct, which would only be applied to the most powerful companies who could be deemed a threat to the emergence or scale of smaller competitors and competition on the whole. Secondly, the team would be tasked with enabling greater personal data mobility and systems with open standards where these tools will increase competition and consumer choice. Finally, to advance data openness.

Outside of this new department, Furman recommends merger policies should be updated, implying the current framework does not take technological advancements seriously enough. Part of this will include updates to antitrust policy, as while monopolies or dominant market positions can be good for efficiencies and benefits for consumers or businesses, there does need to be a mechanism to ensure this position is not abused.

Overall, this is a report which, firstly, makes a lot of sense, but secondly, doesn’t say anything particularly new. Everything which Furman has said is correct, rules are dated, and the chasm is growing larger, but many have already been stating this for some time. Governments don’t seem to be able to take any action unless an expensive economist is given months to come to a relatively obvious conclusion.

That said, Furman’s advice should be heeded. Hopefully the recommendations of a new unit to tackle these challenges will be listened to, though we suspect new responsibilities will be bundled into an existing department and the good intentions will become lost in the mediocrity. We will be happy to be proved incorrect, though it probably is a long-shot.

Vodafone CEO bemoans Jio effect on India

The Indian consumer might be surging into the digital economy at an unprecedented speed, but the telcos are certainly not reaping the rewards according to Vodafone CEO Nick Read.

Speaking at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Read pointed towards consumers which are consuming more data every single day (12 GB a month on average), as well as unsustainable business models and regulations which favour no-one except the disruptive influence of Jio. It isn’t necessarily a picture which creates an encouraging view of the market.

“We only ask for a level playing field,” said Read, bemoaning regulatory and competition rulings made in the country.

It seems Reid believes there has been an institutional preference towards the newest entrant into the Indian telco regime. This is also a company which is forcing the market to create artificially low tariffs, an unsustainable position for the market to maintain. What impact this has on the long-term prospects of India’s digital dream remain to be seen.

While it is hardly unusual for the CEO of a losing telco to moan about unfair market conditions, there have been some credible points made. Jio did certainly disrupt the market, helping the country move into the digital era, but there was certainly consequence. The aggressively low tariffs saw numerous telcos exit the space, either closing-down operations, merging with a rival or declaring bankruptcy.

Vodafone was one of those victims, currently in the process of merging its operations with long-term rival Idea Cellular. Reid highlighted he has been over to India to review the plans recently, and the team has managed to reduce the integration process from four years to two, but it is still losing money. That said, it is not alone.

The issue which remains here is what happens if this trend of Jio destruction is allowed to continue. How many more telcos will disappear from the landscape (there are only effectively four left, including government owned BSNL) before the government steps in to do something. The current position is not exactly ideal.

As it stands, India currently have four major telcos to provide connectivity services for roughly 1.3 billion people. Europe has roughly 160 telcos for a population of 500 million. Although many would argue there needs to be consolidation in the European space, the shortage of options in India is not exactly ideal. The risk of regionalised monopolies is certainly present.

Of course, the newly merged Vodafone Idea business is not lying down while Jio runs riot throughout India, Reid highlighted a Rights Issue is currently underway with the business hoping to raise $3.5 billion. Not only will this help the businesses merge and update infrastructure, it would be fair to assume some pretty aggressive counter-strikes against Jio.

India is one of the most interesting markets worldwide right now, but there is certainly a risk of the landscape devolving into chaos. Whether the Indian government is sympathetic to Reid’s plight remains to be seen, though current trends should not be allowed to continue.

Competition is a problem, removing Huawei could be disastrous – Vodafone CEO

With all eyes in directed towards Mobile World Congress this week, Vodafone CEO Nick Read took the opportunity to vent his frustrations.

Competition is unhealthy, accusations are factually suspect, protectionism is too aggressive, the trust with customers has been broken, collaboration is almost non-existent. From Read’s perspective, there are plenty of reasons the 5G era will be just of much of a struggle for the telcos as the 4G one.

And of course, it wouldn’t be a telco press conference if there wasn’t a reference to Huawei.

“I would like a new contract for the industry, I want to go out and build trust with consumers and businesses,” said Read. “This will require us to engage government and build the vision of a digital society together.”

Read has reiterated his point from the last quarterly earnings call, there needs to be more of a fact-based conversation around the Huawei saga. There is too much rhetoric, too much emotion, and perhaps, too much political influence.

Huawei is the punching bag right now, but any ban or heavy-handed response to US calls for aggressive action would be a consequence for everyone.

As Read points out, Huawei is a significant player in almost everyone’s supply chain, controlling roughly 28% of mobile infrastructure, while Nokia and Ericsson also have market share in the 20s. Removing one of these players from the market will further compound a problem which plagues the industry today; the supply chain is too concentrated around a small number of vendors.

There simply isn’t enough diversity to consider removing a key cog to European operations.

Of course, you have to consider the status quo. The US is happy to ban Huawei as it has never been a significant contributor to its infrastructure. Should the same ban be enforced in Europe, negotiations would be de-railed, and operations disrupted. Read suggests this would set 5G plans back by two years across the bloc.

The issue here is of confidence to invest. Why would telcos enter into deep negotiations when future conditions have not been set in stone. This is already evident in Vodafone’s decision to pause work on the core with Huawei; delaying these important initiatives could push Europe further behind global 5G leaders. Telcos need confidence, certainty and answers. The longer reviews go on, the more precarious the situation becomes.

This is one of the many challenges the industry is facing. There is an ‘us versus them’ mentality when it comes to telcos. Read is referencing the relationship with regulators and government, suggesting a lack of collaboration which is negatively impacting the ability to operate, but it is also evident in the relationship with the consumer and competitors. Collaboration is a key word here.

One example of collaboration is in the UK where the National Cybersecurity Centre effectively monitors Huawei equipment. This model could be rolled out across Europe, though Read’s stressed the point that there would have to be a harmonised approach. Fragmentation is the enemy here, and it would stifle progress. If there is a European level of monitoring, or even if it is taken down to nation states, it doesn’t actually matter as long as it is consistent.

The Huawei ban is set to become one of the talking points of this years’ MWC, that is not necessarily an idea anyone will be surprised about, but what we are not sure about is the disruption. Will it slow 5G development? Has the uncertainty already slowed 5G development? Will the anti-China rhetoric, dilly-dallying and confusion kill Europe’s ambitions in the global digital economy?

Nerves jangle as Aussies delay TPG/Vodafone merger decision

The Australian regulator has pushed back the deadline for its decision on whether Vodafone Australia and TPG can move forward with the proposed £8.2 billion merger.

While this far from a definite sign the merger will be blocked by the watchdog, the longer the evaluation process goes on for, the stronger the feelings of apprehension will get. If the Aussies were happy with the plans to create a convergence player, they would have said so, but perhaps the regulator is just making sure it effectively does its due diligence.

The tie up between the pair is supposed to be an effort to capitalise on convergence bounties and reinvigorate the competitive edge of the business. That said, last month the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) weighed into the equation raising concerns a merger would de-incentivise the market to offer low-cost services.

According to Reuters, the ACCC has extended its own self-imposed deadline to evaluate the merger by two weeks to April 11. If the watchdog cannot build a case to deny the merger by that point it probably never will be able to, but you have to wonder whether the additional time is being used to validate its position of opposition.

All regulators are supposed to take a balanced and impartial position when assessing these transactions, though its negative opinion last month suggests the agency is looking for a reason to deny as opposed to evaluating what information is on the table. Giving itself an extra couple of weeks will only compound this theory in the mind of sceptics.

To be even handed though, the consolidation argument is perfectly logical and completely absurd depending on who you are. There are benefits and negatives on both sides of the equation, irrelevant as to how passionately supporters and detractors preach to you. For all the arguments and evidence which are presented, a bucket-full of salt will probably be required.