EU Launches ‘In-Depth’ Investigation Into Three-O2 Merger

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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EC says it has competition concerns about £10.25 billion takeover of O2 by Three-owner Hutchison

The European Commission (EC) has launched an in-depth investigation into Hutchison’s proposed £10.25 billion takeover of O2 to see whether concerns the deal might negatively impact the UK mobile market.

Hutchison applied for EU approval last month, but the Commission is concerned that the combination of O2 and Three – the UK’s second and fourth largest mobile operators – would result in higher prices, less choice and reduced innovation.

It also suggests that as the largest UK operator, the combined entity would have less incentive to exert competitive pressure on its rivals, and the reduction of operators from four to three could mean the remaining players could be tempted to “coordinate” their behaviour.

Read More: Will Three Still ‘Make It Right’ After O2 Merger?

Three O2 merger

Jackson Puppet ThreeThis contrasts with the current situation where Three, as the youngest and smallest competitor, has aggressively disrupted the market with offers and new features. There are also fears that by taking away one provider of wholesale services, mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) will be at a disadvantage when negotiated carriage deals.

“Mobile telecom services are increasingly important to consumers,” said Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy. “Both to keep in touch with family and friends and to access online services. With this investigation we want to ensure that consumers in the UK do not pay higher prices or face less choice as a result of this proposed takeover.”

While the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) has given its provisional blessing to BT’s £12.5 billion takeover of EE – a deal which is also supported by Ofcom – doubts about the future of Hutchison’s acquisition have grown in recent months.

The failure of the planned merger between TeliaSonera and Telenor’s Danish operations in September has prompted concerns the EU is taking a tougher line to telecoms mergers, while Ofcom CEO Sharon White has said mobile prices could rise if O2 and Three merge. The CMA has already asked the EC for permission to investigate the deal.

“The Commission’s decision to open an in-depth investigation was widely expected in the context of the Commission’s previous approach to in-country telecoms mergers,” a Hutchison spokesperson told TechWeekEurope. “As confirmed in the Commission’s Press Release, it does not prejudge the final outcome of the Commission’s review. We believe the transaction will be good for both competition and consumers in the United Kingdom and are confident that the acquisition will be approved by the Commission.

“CK Hutchison has had open and constructive discussions with the Commission throughout the first phase of the merger review process. We will continue to work closely with the Commission to obtain clearance for the acquisition”.

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