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Telecoms leaders attending the annual Mobile World Congress have warned that too much regulation in the industry is undermining operators' ability to invest in future networks.
Speaking during a February 27 keynote, Vodafone Group Plc CEO Vittorio Colao noted that the European market has a tendency toward overregulation. He also urged regulators to open up more spectrum for operators.
"Spectrum has been too expensive. We need to make spectrum affordable [in order] to incentivize investment," he told delegates in Barcelona.
Although parts of Europe boast some of the world's most affordable prices for consumers, industry bosses argue that declining revenues in what remains a highly capital intensive market has made it challenging to fund costly infrastructure projects and develop 5G networks.
Research published last year by Swedish communications giant Ericsson AB suggested that Western Europe was already lagging its global peers in the 5G race. By 2022, the company projects that just 5% of mobile subscriptions in Europe will be 5G, compared with 25% in North America.
"The reality of governments in 2018 is that they exert increasing control of telecom infrastructure," John Strand, CEO of telecoms consultancy Strand Consult, said on the sidelines of the event.
Describing current levels of regulation as one of the industry's "greatest challenges," Strand agreed that regulators had negatively impacted investment in Europe, widening the funding gap between the region and other markets.
A decade ago, European giants Telefónica SA, Deutsche Telekom AG, Telecom Italia SpA, BT Group, and Orange SA, formerly known as France Telecom, were among the 10 largest telecom companies in the world, according to Forbes Global 2000 records.
Last year, however, only three made that list. By contrast, the number of Asian operators in the top 10 grew from two to five during the same period.
As European telcos grapple with regulators, much of the criticism has focused on their hardening approach toward industry mega mergers.
Sunil Bharti Mittal, founder and chairman of Bharti Enterprises and chairman of the GSMA, the industry body behind Mobile World Congress, said in a keynote that industry consolidation was still facing too much resistance.
Despite more than a decade of M&A, there are still more than 120 major mobile operators estimated to be in Europe, serving a population of 741.4 million, compared with just three operators in China, serving a market populated by 1.38 billion people.
But while in-market mobile consolidation might solve a national problem, monumental levels of fragmentation across the EU's 28 member states would still rob European telcos of the scale enjoyed by U.S. peers such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc.
Meanwhile, Chinese operator China Mobile Ltd. dominates its home market with 885.56 million subscriptions, more than the entire population of Europe and worth a 62.7% share of the Chinese market, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence research.
"Europe needs to get comfortable with a reduction of players … we are spending far too much building parallel sub-scale networks," Mittal stressed, arguing that a number of previously blocked transactions in the region deserved to be revisited.
Observers have long argued that mobile consolidation in Britain, for example, would help smaller rivals meet the threat posed by BT, whose £12.5 billion takeover of operator EE, completed in 2016, gave it significantly more reach than its peers in terms of network presence and spectrum.
The deal created an industry giant with 32.5% share of the broadband market, 43.3% of the fixed-line market and 45% of all usable mobile spectrum in Britain, according to Ofcom figures published last month.
Europe's regulators, however, maintain that moving from four to three operators in the U.K. would lead to higher prices for consumers and reduce the incentive to boost network speeds. As a result, they blocked a proposed £10.25 billion merger of Three with Telefónica-owned O2 in 2016.
Despite regulators' recommendations, Bengt Nordström, CEO of mobile industry consultancy Northstream, said that having two or three operators would be the more "sustainable" route.
"Regulators would like to have four players in each market but this is a bit counter-intuitive," Nordström said in an interview.
"When you have such an imbalance in any market between the number one and number four player, then the only beneficiary in a four-player market is the number one player," he continued, concluding that "this goes against what the regulators wish to achieve."