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Wireless Infrastructure Newsletter

Salinas may block Telefonica's Mexican grand plan July 31 2014

Co-owner of Mexico's third cellco, Iusacell, says his stake is not for sale, as Spanish giant seeks acquisitions

By Caroline Gabriel

Telefonica aims to take advantage of the regulatory shake-up in Mexico to improve its position, in a major mobile economy which nevertheless generates less than 3% of its revenue. It is reported to be in merger talks with mobile operator Iusacell, though a deal could be blocked by the latter's 50% shareholder, billionaire Ricardo Salinas.

Mexico is Latin America's second largest telecoms market, but has been dominated by Telefonica's arch-rival in the region, America Movil, controlled by another billionaire, Carlos Slim. However, the regulator is looking to reduce Movil's stranglehold, which could open the door for Telefonica. The Spanish giant confirmed it was in takeover talks with a mobile operator in Mexico, reported to be Iusacell.

That deal would unite the country's second and third largest mobile carriers and would have 27m subscribers in total, but the resulting carrier would still have only 27% mobile share, far behind America Movil with 71m connections. It is not clear it would appeal to regulators either. Although it would create a more viable competitor for the market leader, it would concentrate virtually all the cellphone base, in a rapidly growing mobile economy, in the hands of just two powerhouses - reflecting the Movil/Telefonica near-duopoly which exists in many areas of Latin America, often making it hard for smaller firms to enter or compete.

However, new competition could be introduced when America Movil offloads assets, as Slim is proposing in order to reduce its share voluntarily and avoid more swingeing regulator-enforced actions. One European firm (which may also be Telefonica) and two US-based companies, are reported to be interested.

However, an Iusacell agreement could be scuppered by Salinas, who owns 50% of Iusacell and said on Wednesday that his stake was not for sale. TV giant Televisa owns the other half of the cellco. If Salinas stands his ground, and Televisa does not sell, that might force Telefonica to focus on the America Movil assets. Either way, it is likely that Mexico will end up with a weakened but still dominant market leader, a strengthened Telefonica, and a third player - either Iusacell or a new entrant.

Salinas wrote on Twitter that Telefonica "wishes to buy Grupo Salinas's stake in Iusacell. It is not for sale. I am optimistic about Iusacell's future. We will keep investing to grow." Of course, he may just be looking to drive a hard bargain, while Televisa is keeping its cards close to its chest. It acquired its 50% stake in 2012, when Iusacell was valued at $3.2bn, and has said it will wait for the results of the current regulatory review before deciding whether to invest further in the mobile operator, or potentially sell its stake.

Mexico accounted for just 2.8% of Telefonica's revenue in 2013, according to Bloomberg, less than Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Peru and Colombia.

China and Korea crack down on device subsidies July 11 2014

High end smartphone makers could suffer as China demands lower subsidies, and Korea mandates discounts for low end plans

By Caroline Gabriel

Handset subsidies are one of the most contentious issues in the traditional mobile operator model. Carriers bewail the way they eat into profits but many attempts to ditch the practice have failed because of consumer attachment to the low upfront fee for a high end device. Some operators are devising new approaches, notably by providing instalment payments on smartphones, as in T-Mobile USA's 'Uncarrier' scheme. But in many Asian countries, the decisions are further complicated by government regulation of the issue.

In China, the authorities recently told the three mobile operators that they must slash their marketing expenditure, particularly their high levels of spending on subsidies (as well as advertising), to boost uptake of new 3G and 4G services. The SASAC (State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission) told China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom that they must reduce their combined marketing spend by CNY40bn ($6.4bn) over the next three years.

This could create yet another problem for Apple, whose Chinese market share has fallen in recent months despite finally netting a distribution deal with China Mobile, the largest cellco. With no low cost model to offer, Apple is heavily reliant on carrier subsidies to make its iPhones affordable, although it has also embarked on some financing deals of its own.

According to a research note from analysts at UBS, around 60% of handsets sold in China are subsidized, and a shift in this pattern will mainly impact the high end of the market, which accounts for about 20% of sales. Apple has about one-third of this high end segment in 2013. By contrast, reduced availability of subsidies should increase the speed of expansion by lower cost, often local vendors such as Xiaomi, Lenovo and Coolpad.

The three operators, especially China Mobile, have repeatedly complained about the impact on their profits of subsidies, which has been felt since the carriers introduced 3G services with their accompanying more expensive devices. Mobile started selling the iPhone at the start of this year and its CFO, Xue Taohai, says this is one reason why subsidy costs will rise by 29% this year.

In nearby South Korea, the three main cellcos have repeatedly landed in hot water with the authorities over excessive subsides, and earlier this year, all three were suspended from signing new subscribers for at least 45 days, for violating caps on subsidies.

Now the government and the regulator, the Korea Communications Commission (KCC), have introduced new rules, which apply to low end handsets too. The KCC says it will move away from its current subsidy cap of KRW270,000 ($265) per device. Instead, it will reflect the fluid nature of the market by adjusting the subsidy cap every six months based on market factors including competition. The ceiling will always be in the range of KRW250,000 to KRW350,000.

The government has also introduced additional new rules in this sensitive area, requiring operators to offer subsidies for low cost plans as well as the expensive deals attached to costly smartphones. The size of the subsidy will be dependent on the cost of the monthly contract. Carriers will also be mandated to offer discounts to new subscribers who wish to continue using their old devices; to those who were not offered a subsidy when they signed up; and to users of smartphones more than two years old.

The ministry of trade said the changes aim to prevent cellcos from attracting customers to the most expensive monthly plans with top end smartphones at low upfront cost.

Chinese trio get FDD trial licences, no 700MHz June 30 2014

All three operators now have paired and unpaired spectrum, but will wait until 2015 for commercial FDD, and 2020 for sub-1GHz

By Caroline Gabriel

China Mobile suffered from being the only major cellco with TDD spectrum for 3G, but has lobbied successfully to grasp the advantage back in 4G. It got its wish that initial allocations, for itself as well as China Unicom and China Telecom, would be in unpaired spectrum, where Mobile has a considerable headstart in expertise, ecosystem and roll-outs. But its rivals may not have to wait too long to receive their preferred, FDD licences too, and all three companies have already been awarded trial rights.

However, it seems likely they will have to wait until 2020 to gain usable spectrum in 700MHz, coveted for its long range and indoor penetration, which greatly reduces the cost of rural build-outs and initial, coverage-driven LTE projects.

Initially, then, all three companies will have higher band spectrum, both paired and unpaired, though it could take a year or even two for the FDD trial licences to be converted into commercial ones (there was a wait of about two years for the same process in TDD, though the huge 'trial' networks which China Mobile constructed during that time were hardly just testbeds.

The length of the wait will be significant for the two smaller operators, whose 3G networks are FDD, and which would prefer to lead with paired frequencies in LTE too, adding TDD at a later stage, for capacity, when the ecosystem has matured. However, Mobile's lobbying for TDD-first means they will have to adopt a hybrid TDD/FDD strategy, a fact which should stimulate the equipment and device ecosystems - another key Mobile objective - but could also make a RAN sharing deal between all three players more likely.

Talks about such an agreement are reportedly ongoing, and the long wait for 700MHz, which improves cost efficiencies for LTE, may be another incentive to come to a deal.

Last week, China Telecom was granted a trial FDD licence so that it can start building networks in major cities immediately, and Unicom and Mobile quickly received their own similar allocations. The bands were not specified but was certainly not sub-1GHz.

China faces the same tensions and trade-offs between the broadcasters, incumbent in the 700MHz spectrum, and the mobile operators, eager for the digital dividend in frequencies which are particularly suited to affordable wide area coverage. The head of China's broadcasting regulator, GAPPRFT, Jiang Wenbo, said this week that it will not complete the handover of the 700MHz spectrum until 2020.

Orange mulls Bouygues bid, UK IPO June 09 2014

As the French company reshuffles its assets to maximize value, it may bid for France's third cellco, and seek IPO for EE venture

By Caroline Gabriel

French incumbent Orange has been weighing up its subsidiaries around the world, divesting some and acquiring others as it looks to concentrate its efforts where it can generate the best results. Much of its M&A effort in recent times has focused on Africa, but now its eyes are on its European home region too. It sold its Austrian unit to Hutchison 3, but it may mount a bid for France's third cellco, Bouygues, and consider a partial IPO of its UK joint venture, EE.

The French market has been thoroughly shaken up by a price war initiated by new entrant Free Mobile, and second cellco SFR recently agreed to be acquired by cableco Numericable. Bouygues lost out in the race for SFR, and now looks weak and casting around for new partners. It has been linked with Free itself, with MVNO Virgin Mobile, and now with market leader Orange.

Although competition regulators remain generally wary of deals which reduce the number of cellcos - one reason why SFR's parent Vivendi chose Numericable over Bouygues - French players feel there is no room for more than three MNOs in their beleaguered market, and the older operators are trying to build up scale to see off Free.

Orange has hired bankers Lazard and Credit Suisse to look into a possible bid for Bouygyes, reported Reuters.

Meanwhile, other reports said that Orange and its partner Deutsche Telekom would revisit the idea of a public offering for their successful UK joint venture, EE. That could see the company's shares listed on the London stock exchange later this year.

An IPO, or sale of a stake to an additional partner, have been discussed since EE was formed (when it was called Everything Everywhere). This could boost the finances of the debt-laden parents, as they look to invest heavily in 4G networks and emerging markets, while giving EE more freedom of action. CEO Olaf Swantee is known to want more autonomy from the owners.

Orange's CFO Gervais Pellissier told Bloomberg that a stock market listing is still the preferred option, although the owners have not ruled out other choices if a suitable offer is made.

Swantee has been asked to "position EE either on dividend or return or growth," within the next six months, Pellissier told reporters in Paris. "We will decide when we return from vacation." One concern will be the increasing level of competition in the UK, with BT set to re-enter the mobile market and Vodafone investing in wireline and quad play assets. Plans for a previous stock market listing were put on hold earlier this year.

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