The antitrust decision about the acquisition of several assets of Liberty Global by Vodafone will be a real dilemma for the competent offices of the European Commission, aka the Competition Directorate (“DG COMP”) lead by the Danish commissioner Margaret Vestager. During the current mandate, DG COMP offices have been religiously clear in setting the principles of their merger policy for the telecom sector: while consolidation is more than welcomed amongst business operating in different European countries, so has they may create pan-European players, by contrast sole-domestic mergers are attentively scrutinized and in several cases even prohibited or subject to heavy remedies.
The Vodafone-Liberty Global transaction is a dilemma because both features, domestic and cross-border consolidation, are present in the same transaction and you may look at it from different point of view: Vodafone will acquire Liberty Global’s assets in Germany and various Eastern countries (Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania), however it is in Germany that the transaction really matters and will need the highest antitrust scrutiny. This is the reason why Deutsche Telekom, the main opposer to the transaction, will fiercely sustain the view that this transaction is a domestic merger disguised by pan-European consolidation.
Where is the true and what could be the final result of the antitrust procedure?
Firstly, let’s consider how much Germany count for the biggest contenders, Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom: it is the biggest telecom market for both operators with respect to their global turnover, namely 32% for Deutsche Telekom and 24% for Vodafone (sources: FT). Beyond such figures, Germany will be a central market for anyone wanting to launch in the future connected cars and IoT business: no-one is likely to be able to launch such business at European level without having a strong feet in Germany and with its industry (not only cars). This is why the 2 companies are fighting for the domestic German supremacy.
This scenario is complicated by the incoming reform of the European Electronic Communications Framework, due to be finalized in June 2018 (with entry into force in 2020) which is expected to play in favor of Deutsche Telekom: the German incumbent will get the possibility to ask for deregulation of new fibers network (so-called coinvestment rules) while getting the possibility to regulate, and get access to, competitors networks thanks to the new rules on symmetric regulation. It is a nightmare scenario for Vodafone (as well as for other German new entrants) and therefore the merger with Liberty Global is the last chance to be able to compete with Deutsche Telekom at almost equal feet.
Thus, it seems to me that, beside the international footprint of the entire transaction, what really matters for Vodafone is the German market and not the other countries where Liberty Global assets will be acquired.
Considering the above, it is not strange that Deutsche Telekom will use its immense fire power to block the deal in Brussels – being very unlikely to get the German authorities to have jurisdiction on the case: see the competence rules of Regulation 2004/139. Truly speaking, Deutsche Telekom will not be alone: other German players, from fixed altnets to MVNO and IoT players will probably try to intervene to have a say, although they may have an interest in regulating some aspects of the transaction rather than blocking it.
The offices of DG COMP will likely welcome the transaction because the strengthening of a paneuropea fixed-mobile network fall well within their vision of the European telecom market. However, the impact of the merger onto the German market may be important and this is why the arguments of the opposers, Deutsche Telekom in primis, will be attentively taken into consideration and may bring to corrective measures which may even make the deal to derail.
Deutsche Telekom’s gold argument will be the impact of the transaction on various content markets, such as licensing/acquisition of broadcasting rights for TV content; wholesale/ acquisition of TV channels and wholesale TV signal transmission; retail supply of signal transmission and TV services. Because of the transaction, the aggregate market power of Vodafone/Liberty Global will be considerably increased and, in some of the above mentioned content markets, may be regarded as dominant. Deutsche Telekom will have various arguments to play: firstly, a previous acquisition by Vodafone in the same cable market (Kabel Deutschland, in 2013) was cleared on the assumption that Vodafone was entering the content markets for the first time and there was a strong competition, especially by Liberty Global; now, with the acquisition of Liberty Global itself by Vodafone all such previous arguments may be play against; secondly, the content markets are much more sensitive than connectivity because pluralism of media can be invoked and one can presume that Deutsche Telekom will be advocating political arguments against the transaction.
Considering the above, it is quite likely that DG COMP may decide to impose some interesting remedies upon the merged Vodafone entity with regard the content market, although it is unclear at the present stages whether such remedies may be so strong to make the deal to derail. It is unlikely, however, that Dg COMP may act unreasonably because both the reinforcement of a strong competitor in Germany and the enlargement of a pan-european player are honey for their eyes.
However, there are other areas which may create troubles to the good completion of the transaction.
The creation of a cable national champion may provoke in Germany a debate which already occurred in other countries, such as Belgium and the Netherlands: should a cable operator be regulated such as a telco in order to allow others telecom operators to get connectivity access to? Traditionally, cable operators have not been regulated because their footprint (nationally fragmented and mainly focussing on consumers) is not adapt for a national retail offers, while the switching costs were too high (since altnets are normally interconnected with telcos and not with coaxial networks). However, in Belgium and the Netherlands the national regulators took a different view due to the fact that the consolidation of cable operators have created in these countries a nationwide cable player forming a national duopoly with the local telco incumbent. BIPT, the Belgian regulator, has recently notified this decision with regard to Telenet (i.e. Liberty Global in Belgium) and the Connect directorate of the European Commission is examining the case. But DG COMP could impose access remedies on the German cable which would override regulatory decisions in the sector and Vodafone has good reasons to be worried about.
In addition, DG COMP may take the present transaction as an opportunity to revise the implementation of the 2014 decision which authorized the merger between E-Plus and Telefonica, bringing down the German mobile network operators from 4 to 3. This authorization was given in the Almunia’s age and there are reasons to believe that the offices of DG COMP would have treated the case differently, if the could at that time. Now that they have Vestager as a commissioner, it is likely that they may find the political support to investigate whether the German mobile market is functioning well, especially with regard to competition for MVNOs and IoT providers. Since the Vodafone-Liberty Global marge is eliminating an important MVNO from the market, a review of the mobile market may be possible.