While some might view European Commission’s decision for T-Mobile Netherlands acquisition of Tele2’s Dutch business as a softening approach to consolidation, White & Case, one of the law firms working on the deal, warned you shouldn’t get too excited.
With the European Commission historically taking an aggressive view against any acquisition which would take a market from four to three operators, T-Mobile Netherlands acquisition of Tele2 Netherlands looked doomed to failure. However, the European Commission has always stated there is no magic number, and each case would be considered on its own merit. Despite this stance, many believed the Commission secretly held the number four as sacred.
“Looking in the rear-view mirror, you could see that the tone seemed to have gotten harsher in terms of the Commission’s approach to four to three operators,” said Mark Powell, one of White & Case’s Partners who co-led the legal team on the deal.
Unfortunately for the European Commission’s claim of impartiality on market consolidation, the evidence has been stacked against it. In Austria, Ireland and Germany, consolidation was approved though there were increasingly stricter MVNO remedies placed on the deal. In Denmark, Telenor and TeliaSonera ditched their own deal just as the European Commission was set to block it. It did have to intervene in the UK with Three and O2, while in Italy consolidation was approved under the condition spectrum was released to create a fourth player, resulting in Iliad’s entry. As time progressed, the attitude towards consolidation seemed to become more vehemently opposed.
With this in mind, the approval of the deal in the Netherlands might have come as a surprise.
“Things are very different in this case,” said Powell. “If the Commission was prepared to look at the very specific conditions, we felt we would have a favourable decision.”
However, what telcos around Europe should bear in mind is the Netherlands is a unique market. This should not be taken as changing attitudes of the European Commission, or a new era where a free-for-all consolidation battle begins. So what were the favourable conditions in the Netherlands?
Firstly, the combined market share of the newly merged business would only be 25%, keeping it in third place. Tele2’s Dutch business was a relatively minor player, only controlling around 5% market share, but is also a pureplay 4G telco. The Commission did not have to worry about 2G or 3G. Another consideration is the aggressive MVNO segment in the country, perhaps compensating for any reduction in competition.
“You could say common sense prevailed, but the fact pattern was recognised by the Commission, so they should be credited for standing by what they say when they said they would look at specific cases and make a decision accordingly,” said Powell.
Another underlying point for the successful merger was the attitude of the regulator. The Dutch regulator was generally receptive to the idea of consolidation, which was perhaps taken into consideration by the Commission. In many of the cases which have gone against consolidation, the regulator has been against the deal. This was certainly the case in the UK Three/O2 merger, where the UK watchdog was publicly hostile to consolidation, as Powell put it.
The final point which Powell believes contributed to the success was the fact the case was heard verbally in court over the course of a single day. These are scenarios which are very fact intensive, resulting in a lot of paper. Simple sending opinions and evidence back and forth creates a mountain of information, perhaps confusing and convoluting opinions. By hearing the case verbally, the court was able to consider and crystallise a decision more effectively.
“At the end of the day, this confirms that if you think you have a strong case, then there is,” said Powell.
This is what should be taken away from this deal. This is not a changing of policy from the European Commission, but conveniently proving it will consider market consolidation in the right circumstances. There isn’t another market in Europe which mirrors the conditions here, but there are markets which could be successful in the same way T-Mobile Netherlands has been here in acquiring Tele2 Netherlands.
Interestingly enough, 5G did not factor into the equation much here. The Dutch 5G auction has not taken place yet, therefore the European Commission was taking into consideration the evidence which was put in front of it. Whether market consolidation is necessary in the 5G world still remains a valid question, and this decision should not be viewed as evidence for either side.
5G will require huge investment by the telcos, significantly more than previous generations, though how to ensure these investments are made in a timely fashion is an interesting question. Should consolidation be preventing to encourage competition and the fear of another eating a telcos lunch, or should it be allowed to ensure scale of customers and confidence in ROI? The debate rages on with pros and cons on either side.
While Powell warned against believing this is a sign the European Commission is softening its approach to market consolidation, it is evidence it can stick to its word that there is no magic number to make competition work.