Mobile network sharing raises collusion fears

At this time a year ago, Europe was abuzz over the plans of high-flying telecommunication operators to roll out 3G (third generation) wireless networks, with their promise of high-speed data transmission and nifty multimedia functions.

Today those same companies are limping financially. Having shelled out billions of dollars for UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) licenses in major European markets, they face problems raising the money needed to build those networks.

One idea making the rounds is that multiple operators could share the same infrastructure. There's no reason four companies, for example, should build four separate sets of transmission networks in a given country. Why not build fewer base stations, masts, and antennas, as long as there's enough capacity to handle everyone's customers?

Why not indeed? Because, say advocates for telecommunication users, too cozy a relationship between different operators can lead to less competition, and ultimately to higher prices for users.

"A serious concern of users is that (European Union) Directorate General Competition has documented a tendency amongst the operators to show collusive behavior. Network sharing appears to be both a further example and a means to yet more of that behavior," said the International Telecommunications User Group (INTUG) in a statement.

By and large, everyone agrees that sharing the sites where transmission antennas are set up -- from rooftops to church towers to lampposts -- is a good idea, given rising costs, political opposition to more clutter of the landscape, and unresolved questions about the potential health hazards of wireless phone signals. It's sharing the electronic gear placed on those sites that starts to raise questions.

"Right now there are some 18,000 mobile telephony antennae sites in the U.K., two-thirds of which are shared," said David Harrington, director general of the Communications Management Association (CMA), a group of U.K. business communication users, in an e-mail response to a reporter's questions. "The estimate is that a further 9,000 will be needed for 3G in the next two years. The industry very much wants to share locations, because planning laws and health fears in the U.K. are making it increasingly hard to find new sites ... However, once you begin to talk about sharing antennae then you're in a different ballgame, involving electronic, rather than real estate, infrastructure sharing -- which might or might not be seen as being anti-competitive."

It's up to regulators to draw the line, of course -- and they insist their primary concern is protecting consumers. In sparsely-populated Sweden, for example, license conditions allow operators to share infrastructure outside major metropolitan areas, while building separate networks in the cities of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malm

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