A look back at the biggest stories this week

Whether it’s important, depressing or just entertaining, the telecoms industry is always one which attracts attention.

Here are the stories we think are worth a second look at this week:


Facebook reignites the fires of its Workplace unit

Facebook has announced its challenge to the video-conferencing segment and a reignition of its venture into the world of collaboration and productivity.

Full story here


Trump needs fodder for the campaign trail, maybe Huawei fits the bill

A thriving economy and low levels of unemployment might have been the focal point of President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, pre-pandemic, but fighting the ‘red under the bed’ might have to do now.

Full story here


Will remote working trends endure beyond lockdown?

It is most likely anyone reading this article is doing so from the comfort of their own home, but the question is whether this has become the new norm is a digitally defined economy?

Full story here


ZTE and China Unicom get started on 6G

Chinese kit vendor ZTE has decided now is a good time to announce it has signed a strategic cooperation agreement on 6G with operator China Unicom.

Full story here


ITU says lower prices don’t lead to higher internet penetration

The UN telecoms agency observes that, while global connectivity prices are going down, the relationship with penetration is not as inversely proportion as you might think.

Full story here


Jio carves out space for yet another US investor

It seems the US moneymen have a taste for Indian connectivity as General Atlantic becomes the fourth third-party firm to invest in the money-making machine which is Jio Platforms.

Full story here


Telecoms.com Daily Poll:

Can the sharing economy (ride-sharing, short-stay accommodation etc.) survive COVID-19?

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A look back at the biggest stories this week

Whether it’s important, depressing or just entertaining, the telecoms industry is always one which attracts attention.

Here are the stories we think are worth a second look at this week:


O2 and Virgin Media are merging to form BT-busting connectivity giant

Telefonica and Liberty Global have confirmed plans to merge UK operations, O2 and Virgin Media, to challenge the connectivity market leader BT.

Full story here.


privacyHalf of Americans approve of using smartphones to track infected individuals

Pew Research Center asked thousands of US adults what they thought about how personal data should be used to help tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Full story here.


CSPs are being cut out of enterprise 5G projects – study

A new bit of research conducted by Omdia and BearingPoint//Beyond has found that only a small proportion of B2B 5G deals are being done by operators.

Full story here.


Streaming venture leads Disney to 29% revenue surge

The Walt Disney company has reported a 29% increase for year-on-year revenues thanks to its streaming bet, but COVID-19 has forced the team to withhold dividend payments.

Full story here.


Silver Lake pays a premium for a chunk of Jio Platforms

Private equity firm Silver Lake has shelled out $750 million for a 1.15% stake in the Indian telco, which represents a 12.5% premium on the price Facebook recently paid.

Full story here.


Online gaming seems coronavirus proof, but is it recession proof?

Online entertainment and gaming companies are seeing COVID-19 surges in revenues, but are these businesses in a position to resist the pressures of a global recession?

Full story here.

Huawei and ZTE win 88% of joint China Telecom/Unicom 5G tender

Apparently seeking to demonstrate even greater patriotism than their larger contemporary, the other two Chinese MNOs went big on domestic vendors for their 5G rollout.

Neither company seems to have made any formal announcement of their own, with the information originally channelled through the paywalled Shanghai Securities, then reported on by Sina Tech. We are once more indebted to our China correspondent for an accurate account of what was reported.

The long and short of it is that China Telecom and China Unicom, having decided to pool their 5G network resources last year, jointly put out a bunch of 5G RAN business for tender. Huawei and ZTE between them accounted for 88% of the business, an even greater share than they won of China Mobile’s 5G work in its recent tender. Ericsson got most of the rest, which puts it in a similar position across all three giant Chinese MNOs.

The split between Huawei and ZTE doesn’t seem to have bee published but we do know that out of the 250,000 base stations included in the tender, 110,000 will be built by China Unicom and the rest by China Telecom, at a cost of CNY 32.27 billion. Additionally, the total spending of CNY 76 billion ($10.6 billion) by all three operators equals 42% of the three operators’ total 5G CAPEX budget for the year.

Once more Nokia was totally frozen out of the process, leading some to ask whether Nokia’s 5G business may be finished (pun opportunity missed there, alas) in China. The linked piece goes on to note that things may be a lot better on the fixed line side and that may be a reason for the RAN snub. Who knows?

While the UK and EU set out their positions with respect to ‘high risk vendors’ earlier this year, the coronavirus pandemic probably means all bets are off and China knows it. It would be very surprising if this global crisis, combined with China’s stated economic expansionist ambitions, don’t result in greater restrictions on the participation of Chinese interest in foreign economies. In response China will strive to be as autonomous as possible and a global Balkanisation is the inevitable result.

KDDI and Softbank join the network sharing craze as Rakuten risk rises

Japanese telcos KDDI and Softbank have inked a network sharing partnership to ease the commercial pressures of connectivity in the rural regions.

Network sharing agreements are becoming increasingly common, perhaps one of the more prominent trends of 2020, owing to the financial pressures being placed on the telcos. With 5G and full-fibre projects on the books for many telcos, deploying connectivity infrastructure in the more sparsely populated regions, were ROI is significantly lower, is a tricky spreadsheet to balance. Telcos are increasingly looking to network sharing partnerships, to ease the financial burdens of building the foundations of the digital economy.

The new company, which will be known as 5G Japan Co, will be managed by co-CEOs Noriaki Terao (seconded from KDDI) and Eiji Otaki (seconded from SoftBank). With each telco owning 50% of the company, the network will reach out into the rural regions to provide suitable densification of 5G base stations for the 28 GHz and 3.7 GHz airwaves.

While network sharing agreements to create a more attractive ROI are not uncommon, perhaps there is more demand in Japan than many other nations. These are telcos who may have to deal with a very significant disruption in the shape of Rakuten.

As the poster boy for the open movement, Rakuten is building a network as many telcos would love to; a greenfield project, completely disassociated from the concept of legacy technologies and systems. This sort of network deployment is a dream come true for any telco and has the potential to offer significant benefits.

Firstly, it has been claimed the network can be run with only 350 employees, a fraction of the workforce running competitors’ networks. Secondly, it could be significantly cheaper to construct, thanks to Rakuten’s embrace of the OpenRAN movement. And thirdly, due to the acceptance of openness, upgrades should be faster and cheaper. This is the sort of network which everyone would build if they could start from scratch tomorrow.

There is still plenty which could go wrong with Rakuten’s business. The network could fail, or it might not be as successful as hoped in teasing subscriptions away from rivals, but the threat is very real for the Japanese telco industry. With investments substantially reduced for network construction, maintenance and upgrades, the demands on ROI are lessened. Rakuten is suddenly afforded a lot more flexibility when it comes to pricing.

At the beginning of March, Rakuten unveiled its ‘UN-LIMIT’ 5G data tariff costing 2,980 Yen per month, roughly half of what rivals have been offering. What is worth noting is that when customers are out of range of a Rakuten owned base station, a 2 GB download limit will be introduced as well as data throttling. This will be a disadvantage for the telco as it is rolling out its network, though the risk of pricing disruption is very clear.

Reliance Jio in India has already demonstrated how a market can be turned upside-down if a disruptor is allowed to gather too much momentum. This is a lesson which the likes of KDDI, Softbank and NTT Docomo should be learning as Rakuten comes online; new initiatives will have to be introduced across operations to realise efficiencies.

Without these initiatives, network sharing partnerships being one, the traditional Japanese telcos will not be able to sustainably compete with the Rakuten tariffs.

Telenor and Telia claim Multi-Operator Core Network first in Denmark

Every Nordic country was represented when Telenor and Telia got Nokia to help them build a new shared network in Denmark.

They are collectively laying claim to the world’s most advanced shared wireless network, thanks to the use of a feature called Multi-Operator Core Network (MOCN). This enables distinct mobile operators with their own core network to share a common radio access network infrastructure as well as spectrum resources, according to the announcement.

“This is a major step on our 5G journey, and I really look forward to start testing with real customers and understanding how 5G can provide true value for them,” said Henrik Kofod CTO at Telia Denmark. “I hope this will inspire other operators in the Danish market to move in the same direction. Network sharing is a great choice when it comes to building sustainable 5G networks. When we maximize our resource utilization, we lower our carbon footprint and optimize our investments.”

“Network sharing is a clear strategic priority for Telenor to continuously deliver one of the best mobile networks in the world, supporting safe and reliable connectivity to our private and business users,” said Georg Svendsen CTO at Telenor.

“Deploying 5G networks independently can be an expensive undertaking for mobile operators in the most competitive markets,” said Tommi Uitto, President of Mobile Networks at Nokia. “This trial highlights that through network sharing, operators can drive efficiencies, lower costs and bring the myriad benefits of 5G to businesses and consumers quickly. We hope that this trial demonstrates to operators around the world that there are multiple options open to them to get their 5G networks up and running quickly and at the lowest possible cost.”

Of course network sharing makes sense if the operators involved can halve the cost of network infrastructure while maintaining a similar level of performance. There is a slightly self-harming air to these sorts of announcements from kit vendors as network sharing presumably means they flog less kit. But if that’s what their customers want it would be even more self-defeating not to sell it to them.

Could Iliad Italia be a victim of Corporate Darwinism?

Iliad’s Italian business unit has lodged complaints with Italian and European regulators regarding network sharing deals, but could these objections be effectively ignored?

While network sharing is a proposition which offers great benefits to cash-strapped telcos in pursuit of the eye-wateringly expensive 5G connectivity dream, it is not without its opponents and critics. Some regulators have become very defensive about the progressive idea, while there are telcos being left out of discussions who are objecting also.

In Belgium, Telenet has raised concerns over a tie-up between Orange and Proximus, while the European Commission prevented O2 and T-Mobile from expanding an existing agreement to include 5G in the Czech Republic. Both of these network sharing partnerships have been halted in the pursuit of maintaining attractive levels of competition, but Iliad’s objections might fall on deaf ears.

Iliad is objecting to network sharing agreements between Wind Tre and Fastweb, as well as another between Telecom Italia and Vodafone Italia. Iliad is the only major telco in Italy not to be in a network sharing discussion. If these partnerships bear fruit, efficiencies will be realised, meaning competitor funds can be redirected elsewhere.

If this is a prediction of the future, Iliad will be in a weakened position to compete in the Italian market, and financial pressures could become too much to justify the venture. Iliad could become a victim of Corporate Darwinism.

The competition versus consolidation conundrum

Competition has been somewhat of a difficult topic of conversation between the regulators and telcos in recent years, primarily because of the polar-opposite opinions on market consolidation. The telcos would like to consolidate to achieve scaled economics, while the regulators want to preserve the number of telcos in each of the markets to maintain competition and encourage investment.

There are pros and cons on either side of the fence, though the regulators do not seem to be shifting. This argument has knock-on effects for network sharing agreements.

Ovum’s Dario Talmesio points out, network sharing could be viewed as consolidation through the backdoor. Combined assets reduces the number of independent networks in the market, and potentially reduces investments and competition.

In the Czech O2 and T-Mobile case, the European Commission suggested as there were only three major players in the market, further combination of assets between two of the parties would present too much of a risk of the third being squeezed out. The same case has been presented by Telenet to the national regulator in Belgium.

Regulators are sensitive to any propositions which would negatively impact competition in a market, but what about markets where the number of telcos could actually be reduced?

How much is too much competition?

While there is no official stance on the number of telcos in a market, the European Commission does not generally approve activities which would reduce the number of telcos below four. Vetoing the O2/Three merger in the UK, or Telia/Telenor in Denmark are two examples, but this might not be the case in Italy.

If regulators were to allow the network sharing agreements to proceed, Iliad would certainly be in a very precarious position, though there would still be four mobile service providers in the country; Telecom Italia, Vodafone Italia, Wind Tre and a Fastweb proposition enabled by its agreement with Wind Tre. This might be deemed enough competition in Italy to maintain a healthy market for the consumer and a financially sustainable one for the telcos.

The four telcos named above are venturing into untested waters here. This presents a new question for the regulators to answer on competition. Theoretically, suitable levels of competition are being sustained, and this network sharing dynamic has been approved by regulators in the past.

In the UK, Three and EE have formed MBNL, while Vodafone and O2 have CTIL. These are passive infrastructure sharing joint ventures, focusing on the rural environments. It is a similar situation which would be created in Italy, and the UK does have a sustainable telco industry. It is evidence that the dynamic could work, with or without Iliad in the mix.

Could this be a case of Corporate Darwinism?

Corporate Darwinism occurs when a market evolves to such a degree that players are either irrelevant or uncompetitive, and therefore go out of business.

The best example of this is Blockbusters. Once a dominant player in the movie rental business, as the distribution of content moved online the proposition of Blockbusters was no-longer relevant, therefore the company did not survive. This is an example of a market evolving to such a degree that the business was no-longer relevant.

The Iliad example is perhaps one where the market evolves to such a degree that the business is no-longer competitive.

If the four remaining mobile service providers have network sharing initiatives driving network deployment, investments can be more intelligently spend (a) on the network, or (b) in other areas of the business.

The shared networks might have a greater geographical footprint, have future-proofed technology and higher performance specs. Theoretically, Iliad would churn subscribers to higher quality rivals. Also, as less money is being spent on network deployment, tariffs could be lower, but profitability could be maintained. Or, more cash could be invested in value-add propositions for products. Rival offerings could look more attractive than Iliad products.

If regulators approve the network sharing agreements between Telecom Italia and Vodafone Italia, alongside Wind Tre and Fastweb, Iliad would find itself in a very difficult position. It become difficult to see the telco surviving in the long-term.

Unfortunately for Iliad, there is a coherent argument to approve the partnerships to drive towards a more sustainable telecoms industry, allowing the telcos to realise efficiencies ahead of the vast expenditure of 5G. The consumer would benefit, as would enterprise customers and the Italian economy on the whole. It might be a case of letting Iliad die out for the greater good of the Italian telecoms sector.

Iliad calls on courts to block Wind Tre and Fastweb sharing deal

Wind Tre and Fastweb have been attempting to take network sharing in Italy to a new level in recent months, but once again, Iliad has its objections.

While there will always be objections to network sharing agreements from some corners of the telecoms industry, Iliad is making a habit of it. As the only telco without a partnership to share communications infrastructure, the Italian disruptor is seemingly attempting to make sure it isn’t left on its lonesome.

According to Reuters, Iliad has submitted documents to an Italian court seemingly in an attempt to obstruct the partnership between Wind Tre and Fastweb. A first hearing will take place on February 12 to access whether Iliad should have access to the deed, though this follows objections made by to Italian courts for a similar deal between Vodafone and Telcom Italia.

The agreement between Wind Tre and Fastweb was originally signed in June 2019. The pair would deploy a shared 5G radio access and back-hauling network across Italy, and also Wind Tre and Fastweb macro and small cells, connected through dark fibre from Fastweb. The aim is to cover 90% of the Italian population with 5G connectivity by 2026.

Wind Tre will also provide Fastweb roaming services on its existing mobile network, while Fastweb will provide Wind Tre wholesale access to its FTTH and FTTC network. It is a very complementary deal for the pair, with the opportunity to realise genuine cost savings when looking forward at 5G.

However, Iliad seems to want to put a stopper on the partnership before it gets going in earnest. This is not the first time it has rejected the network sharing momentum in the country either.

The European Commission is also investigating whether plans to merge Telecom Italia and Vodafone Italia tower assets into a single operating company violate antitrust laws. Iliad has reportedly complained about this deal to regulators also. A decision on this dispute is set to be given on February 21.

The tie-up between Telecom Italia and Vodafone Italia is built along similar lines to the Wind Tre and Fastweb partnership. Firstly, the tower assets of both companies would be merged within telco neutral infrastructure company INWIT, with each telco taking a 37.5% stake. The next stage would be sharing active infrastructure, testing first on the existing 4G network with the intentions of realising efficiencies on 5G deployment plans.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of both these partnerships is the validation of network slicing. While other agreements have focused on the passive infrastructure, this extends the sharing model to active equipment. Both of these parties would effectively be running virtualised networks over the shared infrastructure, a major validation of network slicing if it works.

This is the sort of partnership which telcos will be very keen to see work, while network infrastructure vendors will pray to see fail. Validation of network slicing could revolutionise the way in which rural networks are deployed and managed, allowing consolidation of CAPEX between national telcos through a single point for both passive and active infrastructure. It could drastically reduce overbuild and save the industry billions.

“Completion of this transaction is key for the country’s infrastructure and technological development and will enable us to further accelerate the deployment of 5G, with Italy already among the countries taking a lead in trials of this new technology,” TIM CEO Luigi Gubitosi said at the time.

Despite the clear benefits of network sharing agreements, there are still concerns in the industry. Regulators are worried over the impact of competition, most notably as to whether non-participants in the sharing trusts will be squeezed out of the market. One means to counter this would be to have an independent or nationalised wholesale party, with all mobile service providers effectively becoming MVNOs, but it is highly unlikely telcos would want to move in this direction, effectively diluting their influence on the industry.

That said, the industry is gradually heading that direction as telcos search for funds to fuel the 5G expansion.

Infrastructure companies such as Cellnex are hoovering up passive infrastructure assets across the European continent, while infrastructure investment funds are also seeking out deals. In both of these instances, the acquirers recognise the telcos need money desperately; there are good value acquisitions to be made for those who have a long-term view on ROI in the passive infrastructure game.

The next step is network slicing, which will be taken forward during with 3GPP’s Release 16. Should network slicing be validated, it will only be a matter of time before owners of passive infrastructure start to put their own active infrastructure on the assets and sell slices to the mobile service providers. It certainly won’t happen overnight, but it is a very feasible outcome.

The telecoms industry is at somewhat of a crossroads. 5G is on the horizon, and the realities of funding this expansion are hitting home. The telcos have seen revenues eroded over the last decade but are now being asked to underwrite the most expensive infrastructure project to date. The equation is not balanced, so new ideas are needed.

Italy is a country which is perhaps under more pressure than most. Aside from the drastic reduction in pricing thanks to the introduction of the disruptive Iliad, few spectrum auctions have pushed the financial capabilities of telcos as much as the Italian’s. This is a market which is under pressure.

Network sharing agreements, both passive and active infrastructure, are interesting ways to generate more with less, though it does appear Iliad will attempt to derail progress. As the mobile player in the country without a deal, it does appear the firm fears being squeezed out of the market.

Interestingly enough, the question remains whether authorities will care? If Fastweb is to introduce its own mobile products, Italy would have four mobile service providers fuelled by the efficiencies of network sharing agreements. This might be deemed sufficient competition in the market, therefore the needs of Iliad might be sacrificed in pursuit of benefits for the greater good.

Deep dive: what’s the deal with network sharing?

Information is only as useful as the context you place it in, and for that reason Telecoms.com periodically provides deep dives into industry-defining topics. In this one Jamie Davies explores the opportunities and challenges surrounding network sharing.

Each year brings different trends and talking points to the forefront of the industry, and 2020 is no different. This year, it appears network sharing will be one of the biggest talking points.

5G is on the horizon and it has the telcos scrambling. Upgrading telecoms infrastructure is going to be a very expensive job, ranging from fibering up a nation, to purchasing active infrastructure for sites and even paying for civil engineering jobs; building passive infrastructure is not cheap! Telcos need a way to make the financials of the telecoms future work.

All about the money, money, money

While it might not sound like the sexiest of trends to be assessing, it could turn out to be one of the most impactful. Telcos are scrapping and scraping around to fuel the 5G euphoria which has gripped the industry, and any option to do it more cost effectively would be lovingly embraced.

“Network sharing will be vital to mobile operators still grappling with ways to make the economics of 5G add up,” said Kester Mann of CCS Insight. “Deutsche Telekom for example has projected that the cost to deploy 5G across Europe would come out at between €300 and €500 billion.

“It’s no surprise then to see a growing list of operators partnering with each other in a bid to keep a lid on 5G capex. But these deals may just be the tip of the iceberg; investment models probably need to evolve to become more creative and innovative in the long run. For example, Poland has been considering plans for a single national 5G network at 700MHz. And it would be no surprise to see a European city take the plunge and deploy all 5G mobile infrastructure through a third party.”

Back in October, during a Madrid 5G core conference, Telecom Italia’s Lucy Lombardi outlined the difficulties being faced by the operators. Between 2010 and 2018, Lombardi suggested industry revenues were down $27 billion, but the telcos had invested $250 million in the network. Over 2019-2025, Lombardi suggested another $1.4 trillion would be spend by the industry, 70% of which would be on deploying 5G.

In short, the old ways of telecommunications are not going to cut it in the digital world of tomorrow. There are plenty of opportunities for the telcos to make money as everything and anything gets connected to the internet, but new business models need to be created to ensure these companies do not go bust in the pursuit of profits.

As Mann highlights, various different countries and regulators are pursuing different approaches to create value and efficiencies in the deployment of next-generation communications infrastructure. The Poland example is an excellent one, though the UK is pushing forward with its own innovative approach.

“In the UK, the recent confirmation of plans to introduce a shared rural network is rare example of successful collaboration between mobile operators more often engaged in cut-throat competition to attract and retain subscribers,” Mann continued.

“It aims to curb costs and accelerate timelines to bring more people on online who live in remote areas. It will also help overcome the perennial challenge of tough planning and access restrictions that has hindered network roll-out in the past.”

The UK Shared Rural Network could be described as both an innovative initiative and a business compromise.

As part of the initiative, £530 million will be contributed by the telcos with another £500 million being put forward by the UK Government. The plan will include reciprocal agreements between the telcos to share existing infrastructure and also joint investments to build telco-neutral sites for total not-spots.

This is an innovative approach to deliver connectivity to the most difficult to reach places in the UK, but it is also a compromise. To secure agreement from the telcos for the Shared Rural Network, the Government and the regulator will have to agree to drop the deeply unpopular coverage commitments attached to the 700 MHz and 3.6-3.8 GHz spectrum auctions.

However, what is worth noting is this is not necessarily a new idea. EE (or what was T-Mobile at the time) and Three formed MBNL in 2007, initially to operate and deliver 3G networks, while O2 and Vodafone teamed ahead of the 4G rollout to form CTIL in 2012. Both of these organisations offer financial benefits to the telcos.

“From a cash perspective it’s broadly 50/50 on the usual operating expenditures – so site rental, rates, field operations, etc. We then have the option of sharing the build of networks – we don’t do that for 4G or 5G, but we did that in the 3G build and that saved 50% of the initial capital expenditure, including on capacity and transmission costs by usage,” said Tom Bennett, Networks Director at EE

We’re not alone…

Elsewhere around the world, regulators have taken their own approach to encourage cooperation in the industry. In Malaysia, for example, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has outlined another unique approach.

Licenses for the 700 MHz and 3.5 GHz spectrum bands will be given to a consortium rather than the individual telcos. Investment in infrastructure will be shared, as will the spectrum resources to deliver commercial services, though it is unclear how the telcos will play with each other.

For Malaysia, this is an important initiative. 5G is an expensive technology to deploy, but the regulator is also keeping an eye on 4G. In Western markets 4G investments are not front of mind as coverage is wide and deep, however in countries like Malaysia, the digital divide is a lot more apparent. 4G investments need to continue, and this approach to shared infrastructure is partly to ensure enough money is still directed towards 4G.

However, what is also worth noting is that not it is not a given regulators will be accepting of shared network initiatives.

Earlier this month, the Belgian Competition Authority (BCA) put the brakes on a joint-venture between Orange and Proximus which would create a shared network. The regulator is investigating whether this would negatively impact competition, after Telenet complained over the tie-up.

The issue in Belgium seems to be focused on the number of telcos which are currently present and the breadth of the agreement between the pair. As there are only three mobile players in the market, and the JV would span across all generations from 2G to 5G, the complaint focuses on the idea that it would reduce the number of infrastructure players from three to two. This might have an impact on deployment, as well as placing an unreasonable stranglehold on Telenet.

This is not the first time this issue has been raised either.

Last August, the European Commission informed O2 CZ and T-Mobile CZ that the proposed network sharing agreement in Czech Republic would breach the Commission’s rules on competition. The duo have been in a network sharing agreement since 2011, which incorporating 2G, 3G and 4G for 85% of the country, though the European Commission has now prevented this expanding further.

As is the case in Belgium, the Czech Republic only has three material telcos investing in mobile communications infrastructure. Although there are benefits for scale deployment, the European Commission suggested:

“…the network sharing agreement is likely to remove the incentives for the two mobile operators to improve their networks and services to the benefit of users.”

The European Commission and national regulators are generally open to ideas on how the telecommunications industry can be more efficient, though they are particularly sensitive to competition. Anything which would hint at removing competition would be quashed almost immediately, which is the tricky path which telcos tread. This is particularly notable in markets where there are only three operators, and one has been left out of the network sharing agreement.

Looking at the rules in question at a European level, Article 101 dictates the state of play. These rules effectively look to prevent:

  • Price fixing
  • Production, development or investment limitations
  • Supply scarcity
  • Placing a competitive disadvantage on other parties

The maintenance of a fair and reasonable market is of course a noble pursuit, but the European Commission and national regulators do have to be careful in applying these rules. The telcos do need to apply new models to ensure the feasibility of the 5G business model.

Consolidation is still the enemy

“Regulators will clearly be vigilant, as they want to make sure that sharing does not turn into mobile-to-mobile consolidation, which they don’t like,” said Dario Talmesio, 5G Practice Leader at analyst firm Ovum.

“They could see that sharing can be consolidation through the backdoor.”

The European Commission and its regulators are very sensitive to consolidation. Despite the industry begging for attitudes to change in the pursuit of scale economics to ease the burden of deployment, the regulators have stood their ground to refuse consolidation. The attempted merger between O2 and Three in the UK during 2016 was blocked on the grounds of competition, as was an effort by Telia and Telenor to merge their Danish businesses in 2015.

The rationale for both of these mergers was to create a single-entity where the economics of running a telco at scale were more attractive. As Talmesio points out, network sharing initiatives are very important to ensure the industry progresses in a manner which keeps pace with the consumer and enterprise.

“CSPs have for very long been sharing some elements of their networks, and every G has pushed them to share a bit more, mainly because of the cost and time it would take to build new sites,” said Talmesio.

While it will never be the case that the network is finished, the widespread upgrades which are demanding with every new ‘G’ is what makes the telco industry unique and eye-wateringly expensive to play in. This is where the economics of scale are critically important and why European telcos are perhaps on the backfoot.

European nations are small, and some are drastically smaller than say China or the US. While larger countries present their own challenges in terms of coverage, the benefit of a scaled subscriber base gives more confidence to make bigger investments. Some European telcos will never have this advantage so will have to look for alternative means to fund network deployment.

Although the estimates vary quite considerably, one thing is for certain; network sharing initiatives ease the financial burden of network deployment.

There are of course financial benefits to network sharing, though the estimates do vary. A report from the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) suggests the following:

  • Passive sharing cost saving of 16-35% on CAPEX and 16-35% for OPEX
  • Active sharing cost saving 33-35% on CAPEX and 25-33% for OPEX

Efficiencies are increased when spectrum costs are also shared, though this is unlikely to be a common practice as spectrum assets are often considered a differentiator. If this was to be removed, the industry would start the precarious walk towards utilitisation.

Looking at the proposed joint-venture between Orange and Proximus, the duo will of course be saving money, but another interesting opportunity is in scaling the network. The shared network initiative would increase coverage by 20% in comparison to the combined footprint if the teams are to pursue network deployment independently. We suspect 20% is a comfortable number, and this could be increased should a partnership want to deploy more aggressively.

The financials of the telecoms industry is not working in conjunction with the demands of the consumer and authorities. Cheaper tariffs, faster speeds, greater coverage, better reliability. All of these factors weigh one side of the equation making it difficult for the telcos to continue.

Another factor to build the case for network sharing initiatives is somewhat more bureaucratic.

Telcos are being asked to improve both outdoor and indoor coverage in both the rural and urban environments, but in some cases the biggest problems can be accessing or procuring new sites to deploy infrastructure, both passive and active. It might make sense to share these sites as there is limited availability, or it would at least make more sense to share the transmission lines to ease the burden of civil engineering costs. Another factor you have to consider is the rental fees charged by landowners, some of which are deemed unnecessarily high by the telcos. This has been frequently highlighted under the term ‘ransom rent’ as the telcos have little option if they are to expand coverage.

In some towns there is another bureaucratic nightmare to consider; listed and historical buildings. In Cambridge, UK, for example, so many of the structures are deemed historical or protected, the number of potential mobile cell sites is substantially smaller; share infrastructure is a creative solution.

Its not all plain sailing

What is worth noting is that there are also drawbacks to network sharing agreements.

Firstly, more cooks spoil the broth. With shared assets in operation, especially active assets, require consent and coordination between the sharing parties. There are numerous challenges here, most notably aligning commercial objectives of the parties and more signatures to acquire. Evolution of these sites could certainly take longer in the future.

Another challenge arises when something goes wrong. Debugging the issues could be much more complicated, though this is entirely dependent on how much the two operations are entwined.

BEREC has also noted shared networks could also increase the electromagnetic field emissions. Each regulator imposes limitations on electromagnetic field emissions therefore bureaucratic revision might well be needed should more of these initiatives bear fruit.

The combination of or joint-funding of assets also decreases the resilience of communications infrastructure in a country. Fewer independent mobile networks or infrastructure might well make a country more vulnerable as it reduces the number of points of failure and robustness.

It is also worth bearing in mind that there is only so much space available on masts for active equipment. These concerns were raised in Bulgaria, Cyprus and Croatia, amongst other nations. Networking planning is another concern, as each MNO has its own unique requirements, while technical issues in relation to existing suppliers and protocols could mean MNOs are not compatible with each other.

It would be unfair to suggest network sharing is an uncomplicated path forward.

Despite there being momentum for network sharing, not all of the regulators share the enthusiasm. Aside from Belgian scepticism, Hungary believes non-participating MNOs would face a risk of being squeezed out of the market, while Austria has suggested incentives for investment will decrease in the long term.

There will be pros and cons on both sides of the equation, but it does look to be the fairest and most reasonable compromise to ensure a healthy and sustainable telecommunications industry. The traditional way of deploying networks does not look to be financially feasible, therefore new ideas are needed.

Network sharing is one of the most prominent trends during the early days of 2020 for good reason, and it is safe to assume more of these initiatives will emerge as we progress through the year.

Vodafone kicks off UK 5G multi-operator RAN era

UK operator Vodafone wants everyone to know how much it’s ramping 5G, but the big news was the hard launch of 5G RAN sharing.

The approved acronym is MORAN (multi-operator radio access network) and Vodafone reckons it’s the first operator in the UK to ‘support’ it. While there is already extensive passive infrastructure sharing between Vodafone and O2 via CTIL, this new set up involves the active radio. Not only will this save the companies money on buying new kit, it’s also more energy efficient. How, if at all, sharing the RAN will affect the 5G performance of each operator.

Vodafone’s announcement focused more on the fact that it’s now offering 5G roaming to the Republic of Ireland, which it seems to think is a big deal and that it has switched on 5G in Belfast, Edinburgh and Leeds. This year will see a succession of ‘look how much 5G we’re doing’ announcements, so just get used to it OK?

“We have started the new year as we mean to go on,” said Vodafone UK CEO Nick Jeffery. “We now offer 5G in double the number of places than our nearest rival and we have significantly boosted the capacity of our network. It is ready for the arrival in 2020 of some great new 5G handsets and the next big software release bringing ultra-low latency. Together, these will push 5G to the next level.”

In other news Vodafone has been designated the most improved UK network by Umlaut (previously P3), which has a whiff of damning with faint praise about it. It’s also the best for smartphone use indoors, we’re told, and you can see the full Umlaut findings here.

Belgian watchdog puts the brakes on Orange and Proximus JV

The proposed network sharing joint venture between Orange and Proximus has been slowed as the Belgian Competition Authority (BCA) launches an investigation.

At the request of Telenor and Telenet, the Belgian authorities have placed temporary measures on Orange and Proximus to halt a network sharing joint venture while it investigates the potential impact on competition in the market. The original agreement was between the two parties was concluded in November and will remain stagnant until at least March 16.

Both Orange and Proximus have noted the complaint but rejected the basis of the opposition from Telenet.

“The sharing agreement for the mobile access network will have positive effects for the customers and for the Belgian society as a whole, in particular a faster and more extensive deployment of 5G, a significant reduction in total energy consumption and an improvement of the global mobile service experience, while maintaining a strong differentiation between the parties on services and customer experience,” the pair said in a joint statement.

As part of the joint venture, the pair have said the rollout of a joint radio access network would allow the number of mobile sites to be 20% higher compared to each operator’s current stand-alone radio access network. This improved coverage is claimed to increase the footprint to more than 10,000 households across the country.

Each party would retain full control over their own spectrum assets and operate their core networks independently to drive differentiation. The network sharing agreement would span across 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G.

While this does sound positive for the consumers of Belgium, a complaint from the third-largest operator should not be a monumental surprise.

Telco Subscriptions Market share
Orange 4,895,631 35%
Proximus 6,310,403 45.1%
Telenet 2,801,759 19.9%

Statistics curtesy of Ovum World Information Series (WIS)

Telenet’s has suggested the joint-venture would create a quasi-monopoly, as the number of infrastructure players in the market would be reduced from three to two. The telco also suggests BEREC guidelines would prevent such a joint-venture from materialising as it would undermine intense infrastructure competition.

Telenet is also pointing towards a similar agreement in the Czech Republic between O2 and T-Mobile. Despite this agreement was far less wide-ranging (it did not span across 2G, 3G, 4G or 5G), the European Commission opposed the tie-up with the suspicion it would have a detrimental impact on competition in the country.

With the drive towards 5G and full-fibre broadband straining CAPEX budgets throughout the industry, the impact is perhaps felt more in countries such as Belgium where populations prevent scale. Network sharing agreements are not uncommon as a means to more efficiently invest, though these are usually focused on specific geographies or limited to 5G expenditure. Other initiatives are usually in countries where the base-level of competition is higher than what is currently in play in Belgium.

While this investigation is underway, Orange and Proximus are able to begin the groundwork for the joint-venture, sending out RFPs (Request for Proposal) or select staff to be transferred for example, though Telenet has presented an interesting case. European regulators are incredibly sensitive to competition, especially in markets where there are only three telcos.