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Interesting times in communications markets

There have been a number of recent developments in communications markets that may significantly alter the competitive landscape. First, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has provisionally cleared BT to takeover the EE mobile phone network. The deal will allow BT to re-establish itself as a mobile network provider, having previously owned O2 until it was sold in 2005. The CMA said that:

They operate largely in separate areas with BT strong in supplying fixed communications services (voice, broadband and pay TV), EE strong in supplying mobile communications services, and limited overlap between them in both categories of service.

BT will therefore be in a better position to compete with rivals such as Virgin Media who were early movers in offering. Second, O2 itself (currently owned by Telefónica) is the subject of a takeover bid from Hutchinson Whampoa who already owns the mobile network Three. Because the companies meet their turnover criteria, this deal is being investigated by the European Commission (EC) and the signs don’t look good. If it goes ahead, it would create the largest mobile operator in the UK and leave just three main players in the market. The EC is concerned that the merger would lead to higher prices, reduced innovation and lower investment in networks. Previously, considerable consolidation in telecommunications markets across Europe has been allowed. However, recent evidence, including the prevention of a similar deal in Denmark, suggests the EC is starting to take a tougher stance.

If we compare the two proposed takeovers, it is clear that the O2–Three merger raises more concerns for the mobile communications market because they are both already established network providers. However, it is increasingly questionable whether looking at this market in isolation is appropriate. As communication services become increasingly intertwined and quad-play competition becomes more prevalent, a wider perspective becomes more appropriate. Once this is taken, the BT–EE deal may raise different, but still important, concerns.

Finally, the UK’s communications regulator, OFCOM, is currently undertaking a review of the whole telecommunications market. It is evident that their review will recognise the increased connections between communications markets as they have made clear that they will:

examine converging media services – offered over different platforms, or as a ‘bundle’ by the same operator. For example, telecoms services are increasingly sold to consumers in the form of bundles, sometimes with broadcasting content; this can offer consumer benefits, but may also present risks to competition.

One particular concern appears to be BT’s internet broadband network, Openreach. This follows complaints from competitors such as BSkyB who pay to use BT’s network. Their concerns include long installation times for their customers and BT’s lack of investment in the network. One possibility being considered is breaking up BT with the forced sale of its broadband network.

It will be fascinating to see how these communications markets develop over time.

BT takeover of EE given provisional clearance by competition watchdog The Guardian, Jasper Jackson (28/10/15)
Ofcom casts doubt on O2/Three merger BBC News, Chris Johnston (08/10/15)
BT and Openreach broadband service could be split in Ofcom review The Guardian, John Plunkett (16/07/15)

Questions

  1. What are the key features of communications markets? Explain how these markets have developed over the last few decades.
  2. What are the pros and cons for consumers of being able to buy a quad-play bundle of services?
  3. How do you think firms that are currently focused on providing mobile phone services will need to change their strategies in the future?
  4. Why is BT in a powerful position as one of the only owners of a broadband network?
  5. Instead of forcing BT to sell its broadband network, what other solutions might there be?
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