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.

Ericsson confirms Wind Tre RAN deal

A few days after the news was leaked Ericsson has formally announced a major deal win with Wind Tre in Italy.

Earlier this week it was reported that Ericsson had scored a €600 million deal to supply base stations to Italian operator Wind Tre. The added twist to that leak was that the deal apparently came at the expense of ZTE, with Wind Tre quite reasonably concluding the embattled kit vendor might not be most reliable destination for its hard-earned millions.

Perhaps as a result of that leak Ericsson has not got the green light from Wind Tre to crow about the deal. It didn’t reveal the value and resisted the temptation to gloat at ZTE, but confirmed that the deal involves the provision of Ericsson Radio System gear, including radios and basebands, from October this year.

“Our strengthened partnership with Wind Tre will bring the best radio access solutions on the market to life in their nationwide network,” said Arun Bansal, Head of Europe & Latin America at Ericsson. “This will help to ensure that Wind Tre delivers the best user experience possible to its customers in an increasingly data hungry and ultra-low-latency demanding market.”

This deal augments the core network deal Ericsson scored with Wind Tre back in April. This means Wind Tre is seriously committed to Ericsson as a kit vendor going into the 5G era and will be an important case study in the effectiveness, or otherwise, of its 5G gear.

Hutch buys Veon out of Wind Tre for €2.45 billion

CK Hutchison has doubled down on the Italian market by giving Veon €2.45 billion for the half of Wind Tre it didn’t already own.

Labelling it Italy’s leading operator, Hutch wittered on about how this is a key step in consolidating its telecoms assets, how this would allow it to continue driving synergies and bits of corporate gibberish. In fact, according to Ovum’s WCIS, Wind Tre is the second Italian MNO by subscriber with 28.5 million, while TIM has 31 mil.

“We are delighted to become sole owners of Wind Tre, which gives us the strongest possible platform to drive increased and recurring value for our shareholders, said Canning Fok, Group Co-Managing Director of CK Hutchison. “Having pioneered mobile technology and digital leadership in Italy for over 15 years, CK Hutchison looks forward to continuing to invest in Italy’s digital future, benefitting consumers and businesses across the country.”

Veon, meanwhile, is mainly going to use the cash to pay off some debts and get its leverage ratio down to 1.8x. Around a billion dollars of it will be spent on buying the assets of Global Telecom Holding in Pakistan and Bangladesh, along with 1.6 billion of new debt, which presumably makes sense to Veon’s accountants.

“Our goal is to drive greater value for our shareholders through a more focused and optimized portfolio” said Ursula Burns, Executive Chairman of Veon. “To this end, the company has identified four immediate priorities: simplifying the group’s structure, increasing our operational focus on emerging markets, strengthening the group’s balance sheet and supporting the company’s current dividend policy. Today’s transactions are important steps towards this goal.

“We intend to provide a more comprehensive update on Veon’s strategy in the coming weeks, which will cover, among other things, our ambition to deliver operational excellence across our portfolio, supported by a refocused and expert HQ that provides strategic expertise and direction to our businesses.”