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Oh, those fickle Eurocrats. For months, European telcos and their investors have been hanging on the words of European Union digital commissioner Neelie Kroes. Their hope was that Brussels' quest for a pan-EU telecoms market, plus its desire to spur next-generation network investment (such as super-fast broadband), could improve their revenue-squeezed lives. Top of telcos' wish-list was an easing of antitrust hurdles, which currently serve to reinforce national market boundaries within which a handful of players usually compete.
If Europe's 100-plus operators consolidated, ran the argument, this would provide more scale. Cost and capital spend synergies would then make infrastructure funding easier. A European regulator could take decisions at regional level, for example; spectrum could even be awarded via a European licence to mobile operators.
But the single market - like beauty - seems to be in the eye of the beholder. This week, Ms. Kroes looked at what it means differently to the telcos by suggesting an end to mobile roaming charges (so that consumers could use mobile devices in other countries without paying extra). Of course, this is Brussels, and things may not be quite what they seem. Bringing down roaming fees has been the EU's biggest consumer success to date. And Ms. Kroes, a Dutch politician who grasps the value of populist policies, was addressing MEPs who need to get re-elected. Behind the scenes, and when her single telecoms market blueprint is launched and then debated later this summer, there may be more complicated trade-offs.
That thought may explain the stock market's measured reaction: Bloomberg's European sector index was down 2 per cent in the later part of the week. Still, Ms. Kroes' comments do not bode well for mobile groups. Roaming revenues are thought to account for 4 to 5 per cent of the European services total - slightly higher in southern Europe. Even if their removal is phased, this would put extra stress on recession-squeezed revenue lines just as the pressure from cuts in mobile termination rates is starting to ease up. (One industry-backed study predicts a 12 per cent fall in mobile revenues between 2011 and 2014, in spite of data growth.) The change could also make it easier for consumers to use a tariff plan sold in one EU market elsewhere in the bloc, prompting a downward pricing spiral. With lobbyists circling, Ms. Kroes' phone may ring off the hook.
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