Regulators globally seem divided on the minimum conditions for sustaining effective competition in mobile markets, while at the same time maintaining conditions conducive for robust investment in next-generation networks. It is not an easy dilemma to overcome.
To a large extent, the practical debate comes down to whether three or four mobile operators are necessary to sustain effective competition and investment.
In parts of Asia, there is thinking that “four” is needed (Singapore, South Korea, possibly Japan, for example), as three leading providers is deemed insufficient for competitive benefits.
In India, it is not yet clear how the markets will settle, though everyone agrees consolidation will happen.
Perhaps nowhere as much as France is regulator thinking so firm on the need to consolidate to a market lead by three providers.
Sometime in March 2016, Orange and Bouygues Telecom executives likely will make a decision about combining the two companies. Aside from the obvious details of valuation of the assets and governance issues, the firms will have decided on a regulatory strategy as well, likely including asset disposals to the remaining mobile carriers, Iliad Free and Numericable-SFR.
If the companies proceed, and if the French government approves the deal, Orange will be an even-stronger competitor in the French mobile market.
Importantly, the number of leading providers in the French market will be cut from four to three.
That is a notable change, as regulators globally disagree about the minimum number of suppliers required to maintain vigorous competition in any mobile market. French regulators seem to have shifted views, arguing that consolidation would be better, long term.
French regulators seem to be comfortable with three providers. European Commission regulators seem to prefer four.
In a direct sense, those views lean one way or the other on a key question: what is better, lower prices for consumers or stronger firms able to invest more?
French regulators seem to believe investment now is the bigger issue, so three providers is better, as fewer competitors likely means higher prices, and therefore more ability to invest in next-generation networks.
EC regulators seem more focused on the traditional concern, namely lower prices for consumers, at the risk of less investment.