International Mobile Roaming - How smart regulation could achieve sustainable improvements in the competitive climate of the European telecom sector.
Abstract: International roaming has been a frequently debated subject in the European telecom sector lately. While prices on most other mobile services have been reduced by half during the past few years, roaming charges have remained fairly static since the service was first introduced with the birth of GSM. While generating large profits for Europe’s dominating operators, the situation constitutes a restriction to the freedom of movement concept within the EU Internal Market. In June 2006 the EU Commission proposed a regulation by capping prices for roamed voice traffic on both the wholesale and the retail level. Through studies of literature, articles and statistics, and through interviews with the regulators, operators and other experts it has been my ambition to give answers to the following questions: 1. In what direction is the European mobile telecom sector developing? Who are its dominant players today and tomorrow? 2. What role does international roaming play in this development? 3. What are the purposes of the proposed regulation, and how would it change the conditions for effective competition? 4. Could the regulation’s design be modified to better fulfil its purposes? The study shows that the sector through a massive trend of consolidation is developing towards a pan-European service oligopoly, consisting of Vodafone and two strategic alliances formed by some of Europe’s dominating operators. It further shows that international roaming has played an important role in this development by adding to the industry’s already strong network externalities, thus posing a significant problem for Europe’s few remaining independent operators. Low roaming charges has sailed up as the top priority in the lucrative MNC (Multinational Corporations) market segment, making cost efficient supply of roaming services into a key success factor in industry. By reciprocal discount agreements, oligopoly players have the possibility to margin squeeze independents out of this market. Regulation as proposed by the Commission would, by applying a wholesale price cap, reduce the scope for such margin squeezes significantly and thereby evening out the competitive conditions among operators. However, the study draws me to conclude that the competitive climate has not been a major concern of the Commission’s. The EU is in serious need of public support, and the regulation’s design rather points towards that speed and clarity of results have been the top priorities. Such results are ensured by capping prices even on the retail level. In the meanwhile other issues, such as price caps for roamed data traffic and standardized contract procedures, have more or less been left out of the discussion. The general conclusion is that the Commission, by adding a few modifications to its proposed model, could trade short-term populism to achieve sustainable improvements in the competitive climate of the sector. The study includes three recommendations addressed to the Commission: Ad to the model a uniform wholesale price cap on roamed data traffic Ad to the model a uniform duty to provide roaming contracts to all interested parties Give national regulatory authorities the responsibility to independently handle retail issues The study finally argues that regulation of international roaming, if designed to encourage competition in the network sector, has the potential to achieve positive dynamic effects even in upstream (equipment) and downstream (content) markets.
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