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Unbundling in Europe: recent trends.

Over the past few years, a radical change has come about in the role of the copper local loop that connects subscribers to their operator's local exchange. No longer used solely for telephony, it now also allows subscribers to access internet, TV, IP telephony and video on demand services, all over the same phone line. Falling into step with European Union regulations, the majority of EU member countries began implementing local loop unbundling in 2000-2001. By requiring incumbent telcos to make their local phone loop available to third-parties, and at cost-oriented prices, the goal was to allow competition to emerge in the calling market, and later in the DSL access market. It was indeed recognised that there was insufficient facilities-based competition in the broadband market, and that it was economically impossible for new entrants to replicate the phone line ("essential facility" notion). By turning to unbundling for serving their own customers, alternative operators can gain full control of the network that connects them to their client base, and thereby differentiate their services from those offered by the incumbent carrier. This marks a major break from ISPs simply reselling the incumbents DSL offers, or marketing bitstream offers. But unbundling also requires a greater investment from these operators, since they have to install their own equipment in the exchanges, and so forces the drive for critical mass.

This contribution overviews recent trends in the development of unbundling in Europe, its impact on the telecom market and the strategies adopted by operators (1).

Unbundling on the rise in Europe since mid-2004

After a rather sluggish start, unbundling has been picking up steam since mid-2004. The net rate of increase in the number of unbundled lines in all Western European countries combined has gone from fewer than 800,000 lines in the first half of 2004 to more than 2 million in subsequent 6-month periods. The unbundled line base doubled in 2005, stepping over the 9 million mark (of which a fraction are used solely for voice services). This solid take-off can also be measured in the percentage of unbundled lines in the PSTN base, rising from 1% at the end of 2003 to approximately 6% at the end of 2005.

Alternative operators are turning more and more to unbundling for supplying internet services, and turning away from the incumbent's wholesale offers (bitstream and simple resale). Unbundled lines accounted for an average 18% of DSL connections at the end of 2005, compared to 8% at the end of 2003. The net increase in unbundled lines in fact outweighed that of wholesale lines in 2005 (4.4 million new unbundled lines compared to 2.7 million lines wholesale), marking a stunning reversal from 2004 (2.7 million new unbundled lines compared to 3.4 million new wholesale lines). The decrease in rental and connection tariffs, improved procedures following regulator intervention, the drop in the price of equipment, and the expansion of alternative operator's subscriber bases have contributed to this trend.

Disparate rates of development across countries

The development of unbundling is nonetheless progressing at a very different pace in the various national markets. The base of unbundled DSL has surged in France, Germany, Scandinavia and in the Netherlands. France is home to Europe's largest DSL base (2.8 million lines at the end of 2005, 3.3 million lines at mid-2006). Between mid-2004 and mid-2005, France reported an increase of more than 2 million new unbundled lines, accounting for 43% of the net increase in Europe as a whole. In a number of other countries (the UK, Portugal, Belgium) unbundling has, on the contrary, remained a muted phenomenon. In Switzerland unbundling obligations have remained at the project stage. Austria, Denmark, Italy and Spain are at an intermediate stage, with unbundled lines representing from 10% to 15% of the DSL base. National markets also differ in the percentage of lines that are fully unbundled (equal or close to 100% in Germany and in Austria, for instance) and those which are only partially unbundled--i.e. shared access lines (close to or over 80% in France, Sweden, Spain and the Netherlands).

These differences are symptomatic of each market's particular features:

* Existence or not of bitstream offers (non-existent in Germany until 2004, for instance).

* Existence or not of solid competition from alternative technologies (chiefly cable): a healthy cable market in the UK and in Scandinavia (including FTTx providers in Sweden).

* Full and partial unbundling tariffs: in Italy, which is home to the lowest full unbundling tariffs in Europe, most operators opted for full unbundling. In the Netherlands, where the situation is reversed (lowest shared access tariffs in Europe), only 12% of unbundled lines are fully unbundled.

* Structure of unbundling and wholesale offer tariffs: up until 2005 unbundling tariffs were much higher than wholesale tariffs in Sweden and the UK.

* Evolution of collocation conditions.

* Telephone network structure (size of the exchanges), either enabling or hindering DSL technology deployment.

Regulator intervention

As part of their responsibility to monitor markets, national regulatory authorities (NRA) have played an important role in laying down the terms of unbundling's implementation, through a variety of actions (imposing a significant decrease in tariffs, notably in the Netherlands, in Germany and in the UK; intervening on the technical side such as delivery times and collocation terms, regulating the tariff structures of the different intermediate market offers, to prevent price squeezes).

Up until now, application of the 2002 directives has not led to any deep-seated change in Europe's unbundling regulations. Pursuant to the directives, NRAs can impose obligations to remedy an SMP situation. The 14 NRAs which notified their analysis of the unbundled access market in February 2006, had all imposed price control and cost-oriented pricing obligations.

Operator strategies

Since 2004, unbundling has become one of the prime strategic growth paths for internet service providers (ISP) in Europe's broadband market. The development of traffic collection infrastructures, and the drop in tariffs have boosted the appeal of business models based on unbundling substantially. These various changes have spurred the spread of DSL access and strengthened the technology's lead over its rivals (cable modem, FTTx). The economic incentive which has driven a host of European operators to invest in unbundling can also be seen as the result of several considerations:

* The economic limitations of fibre-based deployments: B2 in Sweden and FastWeb in Italy, which had initially based their growth strategies in the broadband market by deploying fibre optic networks, later switched their focus to unbundling as a more cost-effective means of expanding their footprint.

* Growing competition between offers: Tele2, which entered the market as a reseller, has nonetheless managed to expand its subscriber base. But it has faced increasing pressure from competing operators marketing enhanced broadband offers (notably triple play bundles). Its recent takeover of a series of operators which had invested in unbundling (Tiscali Denmark, Versatel in Belgium, UTA in Austria) is a clear indication of the operator's new strategy. AOL, with its investments in unbundling in France and in the UK in 2006, provides a further example.

* The markets' reorganisation. In France, the merger of Neuf Telecom and Cegetel radically altered the shape of the wholesale market. Virtually all of the country's ISPs (AOL, Club Internet, Tele2) which had been relying on the two operators' wholesale DSL offers saw their options reduced to Neuf Cegetel and France Telecom. As a result, they have since begun announcing investments to migrate to unbundling and its more attractive business model.

Impact on competition

Unbundling has fuelled the rise of competition in the broadband market, with benefits for consumers in terms of prices and services, particularly in those countries where competition from alternative technologies (chiefly cable) is weak or non-existent. France is a prime example here, with 94% of broadband connections based on DSL. Competition in the country heated up as wholesale offers developed, and even more so with the growing use of unbundling. As a result, the incumbent's share of the broadband retail market dropped from 70% in 2002 to 47% in 2005. Unbundling also allowed alternative operators (beginning with neuf cegetel and Free/Iliad, which are Europe's first unbundlers) to begin innovating with bitrates and services, including IPTV and VoIP.

As a driving force behind competition, unbundling has been one--though not the only--contributing factor to the European broadband market's growth. The number of broadband subscribers in Europe has indeed climbed from 24 million (6% of population) at the end of 2003 to 59 million (15% of the population) at the end of 2005--progress so substantial that the Europe has now closed the growth gap with the US. In the telephony market, on the other hand, unbundling's impact has been much more muted until recently. Incumbent telcos still enjoy clear dominance in the access market, and competition in the calling market still goes largely by way of preselection. Unbundling's business model proved ill-suited to the telephony market, carrying costs that were too high compared to the expected return. But, now with the emergence of VoIP offers, unbundling is also creating competition in the voice market, as demonstrated by the French case. While the development of unbundling has a very beneficial effect on offers and tariffs, for economic reasons it can also drive some ISPs to ignore areas where unbundling cannot be implemented. The result is the creation of yet another divide between non-unbundled zones and unbundled zones where users have more alternatives than just the incumbent's ISP. Alternative operators are therefore concentrating their investments in urban zones and, in other areas, depending on subsidies from local authorities.

The unbundling debates

A great many debates have been taking place over the long-term benefits of unbundling, and particularly over the disincentives to invest that unbundling regulations may prove to be. One major concern in recent months has been the likelihood that unbundling may quash the leading telcos' incentive to invest in upgrading their access network. There have been very few optical network deployments in Europe up to now. A handful of incumbent carriers have nonetheless begun announcing plans: Deutsche Telekom which has said that its plans to invest in a VDSL network (combining fibre optic to the curb and VDSL on the copper sub-loop to the subscriber) are contingent on it having exclusive access to the network. The European Commission refused the request, citing application of the regulatory framework that requires access to be provided, even for partial use of the copper loop. Negotiations are nonetheless still possible over the tariffs that DT can set for access to the network, which will not necessarily be cost-oriented, and could factor in the financial risks being shouldered by the operator. France Telecom too has announced a new infrastructure deployment project, but only on a limited number of sites, and on a purely experimental basis. In late 2005, debates began around Europe following the European Commission's launch of the review process for evaluating application of the 2002 directives, and for making any eventual changes. These discussions could well lead to modification of the rules governing Europe's broadband market, and unbundling's role in particular (whether or not to uphold copper loop unbundling obligations, application of these obligations to new infrastructures, encouraging facilities-based competition).

The outlook for unbundling

The way that Europe's broadband market, and unbundling in particular, develops over the next few years will likely be affected by a set of interconnected factors, including:

--degree of broadband take-up and market saturation,

--growth of competition from alternative infrastructures (cable, fibre),

--network structure, notably the size of the exchanges,

--development of naked DSL offers,

--changes in unbundling and in bitstream offer tariffs, particularly as a result of regulatory decisions,

--market concentration and alternative operators' capacity to invest in infrastructures.

Estimates prepared by IDATE up to 2010 are:

--a broadband market likely in excess of 110 million subscribers in the 16 countries being examined, for an average density of 28%,

--triple the number of unbundled DSL, reaching 23 million (27% of DSL),

--high growth of unbundling in the UK, Italy and Spain where a number of operators are currently investing in unbundling; in France, migration from shared access to full unbundling,

--in the Netherlands and in Norway: less spectacular growth for unbundling (which is already well-developed) due to the increasing use of naked DSL.

(1) This contribution is based on IDATE's report "Unbundling in Europe" (March 2006).

Sophie BISMUT

IDATE, Montpellier
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Title Annotation:Regulation and Competition
Author:Bismut, Sophie
Publication:Communications & Strategies
Date:Jul 1, 2006
Words:2050
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