A row over competition in the UK market for Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) services has erupted after broadband ISP TalkTalk accused Vodafone of “withdrawing entirely from the MVNO market“, which would seriously limit the choices for BT and EE’s rivals when hunting for an alternative supplier.
The claims surfaced as part of TalkTalk’s initial submission to the Government’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which is currently reviewing BT’s proposed £12.5bn merger with EE and is due to post an outcome by the end of this year (the administrative deadline is 23rd November 2015).
Overall TalkTalk made two submissions to the process, which we’ve tracked down to here and here. The submissions note how Vodafone has recently re-entered the fixed line consumer broadband market, as well as the potential prospect of a future deal between the mobile giant and the owner of cable operator Virgin Media; Liberty Global (here).
But the most interesting insight occurs in TalkTalk’s first submission, in which they reveal a significant dispute with Vodafone over the reasons for last year’s switch to O2 as their MVNO partner (original news).
TalkTalk’s Statement to the CMA
In line with our previous submission, TalkTalk considers that the proposed merger of BT and EE will significantly lessen competition in the market for wholesale MVNO agreements. The merger will reduce the number of active MVNO wholesalers from two to one, and would thereby make it difficult, or in some cases potentially impossible, for firms wishing to enter into an MVNO agreement in order to provide bundled products including both fixed-line and mobile access.
We now understand that Vodafone is in the process of withdrawing entirely from the MVNO market. TalkTalk understands that Vodafone has served notice to terminate the MVNO agreement that it has in place with Sainsbury’s, and the agreement it had with Carphone Warehouse is also ending. As pointed out above, Vodafone also chose to terminate TalkTalk’s MVNO agreement without warning. A firm with no active MVNO agreements in place (that are not in their notice periods) and which is [redacted], cannot be considered to be a competitor in the wholesale MVNO market.
In the appropriate counterfactual to the proposed BT/EE merger, O2 will have been acquired by Three. Prior to the BT/ EE merger there will therefore already be only two potential MNO suppliers to a firm wishing to enter into a new or extended MVNO agreement (EE and the merged Three/ O2).
Understandably TalkTalk’s view is that the merger of BT and EE would “further contract the number of potential suppliers of MVNO agreements from two to one“, since no major fixed line rival would want to give their mobile business to a direct competitor if they could possibly help it; such is one of the problems with having too much bundling and market consolidation.
Likewise Three UK’s parent is attempting to gobble O2, which would effectively leave whatever results from that as the only viable choice for rivals (assuming the deal goes through) and that’s partly why both Sky Broadband and TalkTalk have since gone for an MVNO deal with O2. But Vodafone denies all this.
A Vodafone Spokesperson said:
“We have no plans to exit the UK MVNO market and we are informing the CMA of the correct position today. Vodafone cannot comment on individual commercial decisions made by its partners, but the decision to terminate the TalkTalk MVNO agreement was not made by Vodafone. TalkTalk announced an MVNO deal with O2 and we continue to provide MVNO services to Sainsbury’s and Talk Mobile.”
At this stage we are not privy to the exact details of TalkTalk’s and Vodafone’s split, although the providers are clearly in conflict. In any case it doesn’t change the fact that the UK may shortly be left with only one dedicated mobile operator, although that’s not to say that a merged Three UK and O2 might not also decide to have another bash at the fixed line market in the future. Ofcom and the CMA will have their work cut out in ensuring that everybody plays fair.