Let roaming fees hang around for a while longer, EU countries say

The Council of the European Union – the part of the EU legislature that represents member states – has formally laid out its stance on changing incoming legislation around roaming and net neutrality. This means negotiations with the European Parliament can formally commence, and as some parliamentarians warned on Tuesday, this will be a feisty fight.

The Council’s position opposes the Commission and Parliament’s original intention of eliminating roaming surcharges for those travelling within the EU by the end of this year. Instead, from mid-2016 people would get to use a daily 5MB “basic roaming allowance” when crossing borders that would be the same as domestic mobile data costs. Above that, operators will be able to charge extra for roaming, but not more than the wholesale costs levied by the carrier whose network is being roamed onto.

It would only be in mid-2018 that member states would ask the Commission to “assess … what further measures may be needed with a view to phasing out roaming charges” and then maybe propose new laws. In other words, the Council wants the abolition of roaming fees to be put on ice, despite the widespread push for a European digital single market.

As for net neutrality, “agreements on services requiring a specific level of quality will be allowed, but operators will have to ensure the quality of internet access services.” Again, this does not gel with the strict rules passed by the European Parliament last year, but EU digital chief Andrus Ansip, who is more bullish on the issue of the single digital market, has indicated that he is more sympathetic to this particular compromise.

According to sources in the European Parliament, many countries backed the watering-down of the roaming changes, with only Cyprus and the Italians saying the proposals didn’t go far enough. The strongest opponents of a tough net neutrality text were apparently the Germans and the British. It is probably worth nothing that two of Europe’s most powerful telcos, Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone, are German and British respectively.

Interestingly, the mobile industry body GSMA said in a statement that the reduced scope of the telecoms reform proposals, under the Council’s amendments, represented “a missed opportunity”. However, GSMA head Anne Bouverot said that “the immediate priority is for these proposals to reach a positive conclusion so that we can start the process of creating a truly Digital Single Market that will benefit Europe’s citizens and businesses.” The organization is against “overly prescriptive” neutrality rules, but a bit less openly agitated about the roaming elements.

The European consumer organization BEUC blamed telcos for lobbying against more meaningful roaming changes, arguing that a focus on wholesale prices could hinder competition (after all, Europe’s big telcos span many countries and will be both the buyer and supplier).

BEUC legal chief Guillermo Beltrà said:

It is no secret that the big telecom industry has done their utmost to delay the abolition of roaming charges. The end of roaming has been in the making for a very long time, and this is something that telecoms have known and should be ready for. In fact, they are also to benefit from the new consumer demand that will emerge once roaming is abolished.

If the Parliament is to successfully push back against the watering-down of the roaming proposals, a majority of parliamentarians will need to join the fight.

So far, the second- and fourth-largest blocs in the European Parliament (the Socialists and Democrats and the Liberals and Democrats respectively) have both indicated that they will fight the Council hard.

The largest bloc, the center-right European People’s Party, has also previously taken much credit for shepherding through the reforms, and the single-market-motivated Commission will no doubt be right behind them. The net neutrality situation looks a bit less clear-cut.

Whatever happens, this should be entertaining to watch.

This article was updated at 5.15am PT to include the GSMA statement, and again at 6.10am PT to include information from my parliamentary sources. It was also updated on 5 March to include BEUC’s statement.

BT agrees to $19B takeover of EE, paving way for close DT relationship

The negotiations are over: pending regulatory approval, BT will get back into the U.K.’s mobile scene in a big way by buying EE from Deutsche Telekom and Orange for £12.5 billion ($19 billion).

This means BT will be able to sell fully-converged bundles of fixed and mobile connectivity, telephony and pay TV services. It will also leave Germany’s Deutsche Telekom as BT’s biggest individual shareholder, and DT’s chief is already talking about the big European national telecoms giants working together more closely in the future.

“The UK’s leading 4G network will now dovetail with the U.K.’s biggest fiber network, helping to create the leading converged communications provider in the U.K.,” BT CEO Gavin Patterson said in a statement. “Consumers and businesses will benefit from new products and services as well as from increased investment and innovation.”

The companies began exclusive talks in December last year after BT said it was interested in buying either EE or O2. After BT and EE went exclusive, Three UK owner Hutchison Whampoa said it was in talks to buy Telefónica’s O2.

If both those deals go through, the U.K. will be left with three network-owning mobile operators, rather than four (the other one is Vodafone). Regulators will need to take this into account, along with the various chunks of spectrum that the companies own — despite only explicitly talking about business services at the time, BT bought 4G spectrum in 2013’s big auction.

It remains to be seen whether Europe’s competition regulators will take an interest, or whether it will be down to the UK Competition and Markets Authority.

EE is the U.K.’s largest mobile carrier, comprising as it does two former carriers, T-Mobile UK and Orange. It has 24.5 million direct mobile customers, 834,000 fixed broadband customers and a bunch more people who use EE mobile services resold under different virtual operator brands. In total, it services 31 million people, or roughly half the country.

The deal will be a cash-share combination, leaving Deutsche Telekom with a 12 percent stake in BT and one non-executive board member, and France’s Orange with a four percent stake.

“The transaction is much more than just the creation of the leading integrated fixed and mobile network operator in Europe’s second largest economy,” DT CEO Tim Höttges said in the statement. “We will be the largest individual shareholder in BT and are laying the foundations for our two companies to be able to work together in the future.”

Hutchison Whampoa hopes to buy O2 UK for $15 billion

The pairing-off of major U.K. telecommunications players continues: On Friday, Three’s Hong Kong owner, Hutchison Whampoa, said it was now in exclusive takeover discussions with Telefónica’s O2.

The merry dance began last November, when fixed-line player BT (the company that once spun out what became O2) said it wanted to get back into the mobile game, and was considering buying either EE (joint-owned by Germany’s Deutsche Telekom and France’s Orange) or O2. Hutch waded in days later, indicating that it was also mulling a purchase of EE or O2.

In December, BT formally announced that it was in exclusive talks to pick up EE for just under $20 billion. So it’s no surprise to see Hutch now doing the same with Three – a move that would reduce the number of network-owning British carriers from four to three.

As things stand, Spain’s Telefónica would get £9.25 billion ($13.86 billion) in cash for O2, which it would no doubt use to pursue further consolidation opportunities in other markets – last year it bought KPN’s German E-Plus subsidiary, for example.

It could also look forward to “deferred upside interest sharing payments of up to a further £1 billion in the aggregate payable after the cumulative cash flow of the combined businesses of Hutchison 3G UK Limited and O2 UK has reached an agreed threshold,” according to the statement.

All this depends on due diligence, agreement on terms and regulatory approval. At the EU level, digital economy commissioner Günther Oettinger says he’s keen to see more consolidation in European telecoms, so as to create bigger regional rivals to U.S. carriers. Though this, of course, would be a larger Hong Kong-owned player.

Telefónica already got rid of its U.K. fixed-line business in 2013, selling it to BSkyB for $300 million.

China cautiously opens up to foreign investment in telecoms and online businesses

If you’re a telecoms or online firm that’s been itching to invest in China, now’s your chance – as long as you’re happy to set up shop in the new Shanghai Free Trade Zone (FTZ), a kind of sandbox lab for Chinese market liberalization. On Tuesday state-owned outlets CRI and Xinhua reported that foreign investors will be able to own up to 55 percent of the e-commerce operations of “data-processing companies”, and as much as they like of app store, home internet access and “multi-party communications” companies. Most services can be offered country-wide, though foreign-owned ISPs will only be allowed to operate in the FTZ for now.

Austrian mobile operators consolidate, but a new player is on the horizon

The country’s smallest operator, 3, just grew significantly through the acquisition of number-three player Orange. However, regulatory approval was conditional on a new entrant taking hold later this year, and number-two player T-Mobile is also deeply unhappy about aspects of the takeover.

2.6 million join Free Mobile’s French revolution

After just three months of operation, France’s disruptive Free Mobile — which has upset the market with an innovative and controversial offering — has won 2.6 million subscribers, an unprecedented number for a new European launch.

Coming to America: China Telecom launching U.S. service

China Telecom is moving ahead with plans to pursue an MVNO service in the U.S. starting next year. A China Telecom executive said the branded cellular service will start early next year and will target tourists and travelers who fly between China and the U.S. frequently.

Ditching net neutrality ‘risks irreversible harm’

A report published today in the UK labels arguments against network neutrality as “myths” — and suggests that attempts by broadband providers to manage online traffic will end up doing long-term damage to the entire Internet industry.

Verizon FiOS Slows as Mobile Grows

Verizon’s FiOS business slowed in the fourth quarter but Verizon Wireless continued to build on its momentum, adding 2.2 million new customers. And mobile data — which has become a focal point for the carrier — fueled much of the revenues.