Internet & mobile operators at war: merge, acquire, complain

Deals and accusations rock ZA’s Vodacom

The South African mobile operator landscape can be described as a microcosmic reflection of the larger African experience: Mobile technology is exponentially more developed than what an outside observer would otherwise predict, based on distinct economic predictors.  One of the key reasons for this highly-developed sub-Saharan mobile world is the concomitant lack of hard-wired infrastructure, necessitating that mobile make up for the copper-wire slack.  Other reasons include the hot topic of mobile banking (again: lack of brick-and-mortar banks necessitates mobile banking alternatives, such as M-Pesa’s services, on which AAT has reported extensively).

South Africa, as the continent’s largest (or second-largest, depending on whether you trust the revised Nigerian GDP numbers) economy, is of course at the forefront of the African mobile/internet frontier.

Now, the large South African operator Vodacom has rejoined the antitrust headlines simultaneously in two ways:

First, Vodacom ZA plans to acquire Neotel, a large S.A. internet provider, for 7 billion Rand (circa $650m).  This transaction will, of course, be subject to merger review by the South African Competition Commission (“SACC”).

Second, Vodacom has confirmed the prior reports of its competitor Cell-C’s October 2013 complaint, accusing Vodacom of discriminatory pricing, which is now being taken rather seriously by the SACC, according to TechCentral’s reporting.  On that front, Vodacom’s spokesman Richard Boorman is quoted as using classic competition-law argumentation as a clever shield:

“Cell C is apparently arguing for an increase in the price that Vodacom customers pay to call other Vodacom customers. It’s hard to argue that increasing prices would be a benefit to consumers.”

Vodacom’s official press statement on the Neotel deal follows below:

Vodacom reaches agreement to acquire Neotel

Monday, 19 May 2014

Further to the SENS announcement on 30 September 2013, Vodacom has reached an agreement with the shareholders of Neotel Proprietary Limited (“Neotel” or the “Company”) to acquire 100% of the issued share capital in, and shareholder loans against, Neotel for a total cash consideration equivalent to an enterprise value of R7.0bn.

Principal benefits of the transaction

Leading fixed telecommunications network

Neotel, which started operations in 2007, is the second largest provider of fixed telecommunications services for both businesses (commonly referred to as enterprise services) and consumers in South Africa. The company has access to over 15,000 km of fibre-optic cable, including 8,000 km of metro fibre in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Neotel also has access to 2 x 12 MHz of 1800 MHz spectrum, 2 x 5 MHz of 800 MHz spectrum and 2 x 28 MHz of 3.5 GHz spectrum.

Acceleration of Vodacom’s unified communications strategy

Neotel will become a subsidiary of Vodacom South Africa and the combination with Vodacom’s South African fixed enterprise business will create a national service provider with annual revenues of more than R5bn.

Vodacom sees a significant opportunity to accelerate growth in unified communications products and services by integrating its extensive distribution and marketing capabilities with Neotel’s fixed network and product capabilities. The combined entity will be able to offer an expanded and enhanced range of converged services (e.g. hosted PBX, OneNet) to enterprise customers. Vodacom estimates revenue synergies with a total net present value of approximately R0.9bn after integration costs.

Enhancement of next generation network capabilities in South Africa

The combination of Neotel’s and Vodacom’s networks will improve overall network availability and reduce the cost to serve customers. The combined business will also be ideally positioned to accelerate broadband connectivity in line with the South African Government’s broadband targets, enabling Vodacom to take a leading position in the fibre to the home and fibre to the enterprise segments of the market.

The combined entity will also be able to use the radio spectrum currently assigned to Neotel more effectively. This spectrum will enable Vodacom to accelerate the roll-out of LTE (commonly referred to as 4G) services, providing high speed, high quality wireless connectivity to a greater proportion of the South African population.

In-market consolidation with substantial cost and capex savings

Vodacom expects to achieve substantial cost and capex synergies with an annual run-rate of approximately R300m before integration costs in the full fifth year post completion, equivalent to a net present value of approximately R1.5bn after integration costs. These savings will primarily be derived from the joint utilisation of Neotel’s extensive fibre network and the elimination of overlapping elements, joint procurement and the combination of overlapping administrative functions. The transaction values Neotel at a multiple of 8.8x annualised 1H2014 OpFCF, adjusted for cost and capex synergies.

Neotel management and employees

Vodacom looks forward to welcoming Neotel’s employees. Their fixed and enterprise skills will enable the combined entity to deliver enhanced and extended service offers.

Additional information on the transaction

Vodacom will fund the acquisition through available cash resources and existing credit facilities.

The transaction remains subject to the fulfilment of a number of conditions precedent including applicable regulatory approvals and is expected to close before the end of the financial year.

Speaking about the transaction, Vodacom Group CEO Shameel Joosub said:

“Through the combination of these two businesses, the provision of a wider range of business services and much needed consumer services like fibre-to-the-business and fibre-to-the-home becomes a concrete reality – it will be good for the consumer, good for business and good for the country.  And for our investors, the transaction fits perfectly within the priorities of Vodacom’s growth strategy focused on continuing our investment in data and our Enterprise business.”

 

Advertisements

Telecom adversaries to remain “principled” in their competing bids for 4G spectrum

south_africa

The telecoms are at it again, and MTN and Vodacom find themselves close together once more.  Last October, we reported on their being jointly targeted by competitor Cell C for predatory “on-net” pricing.  Today, the two top market players are both eyeing additional spectrum for high-speed LTE/4G wireless service — an asset that can potentially be obtained much more swiftly by acquiring an existing firm owning such spectrum, rather than ex ante licensing or bidding at public auction for frequency band… At the moment, Vodacom is attempting a 100% share acquisition of smaller rival Neotel — a deal that might include valuable frequency.

In a South African Tech Central report, MTN’s group CEO is quoted as saying that he would refrain from “automatically” challenging any such acquisition by his main rival:

Asked if MTN would object to a deal between Vodacom and Neotel at the Competition Commission, MTN Group CEO Sifiso Dabengwa said that the operator would not automatically do so. “The issue here is you can’t take a position because of where you are [in the market],” he said. “It has to be principled, no matter which side you’re on.”

It does not take a clairvoyant to see what is behind MTN’s self-imposed restraint: equal hunger for additional spectrum – and acquisitions – which it does not want to stifle by raising rash arguments of anti-competitive effects of the Vodacom/Neotel deal…

South Africa’s mobile operators under attack for discriminatory “on-net” pricing

south_africa

Cell C (one of South Africa’s top 3 mobile telecommunications providers) has filed a complaint against competitors MTN and Vodacom with the Competition Commission, according to its press statement dated October 9, 2013

What appears to be the crux of the Cell C complaint is a predatory pricing argument against MTN and Vodacom — a type of claim that is, generally speaking, not an easy one to make.  Complaining to an antitrust regulator or a court that a rival is charging too low a price for competing services is generally a no-go of an antitrust argument.  You are essentially telling the judge: “my rivals out-compete me! Help me raise prices!

To make out a successful case for truly anti-competitive predatory conduct, you would normally (e.g., in the U.S. or in the EU) have to prove (1) dominance, (2) true below-cost pricing (the economic measure of which is subject to debate, on top of that), (3) a likelihood of success in the subsequent recoupment of any losses incurred, and potentially, depending on your jurisdiction, (4) predatory intent by the dominant firm.

Interestingly, the complaint may have received well-timed (or perhaps too well-timed?) support from the South African Independent Communications Authority (ICA).  The ICA recently announced plans to reduce the so-called “mobile termination rates” by 75%, from 40 to 10 South African cents within 2 years.  This would, we expect, reduce the current differential between on- and off-rate calls.

This of course bodes well for Cell C, as the company has openly stated its desire, according to another report, for “a flat rate” i.e., termination rates of zero.  In its October 11, 2013, proposal to cut termination rates drastically, the ICA tellingly concludes “that competition in the wholesale voice call termination markets … is ineffective owing to inefficient pricing.”  (Draft Regulation at section 5.)  The regulator purportedly used the hypothetical monopolist test to define and evaluate the relevant markets.  Violations of the proposed rate reductions would carry penalties of Rand 500,000 to R1m.

Vodacom is the largest S.A. mobile carrier by number of subscribers, ahead of MTN and Cell C.  MTN — itself no stranger to these blog pages — is the dominant mobile carrier on the African continent, however, and has been accused previously of leveraging its power elsewhere to gain or maintain dominance in other jurisdictions.

According to an article that appeared in the South African journal MoneyWeb, Cell C’s CEO Alan Knott-Craig has complained publicly at an industry conference that its competitors (Vodacom and MTN) are abusing their purported dominant market positions with far lower on-net call rates than off-net rates (i.e., rates to numbers outside the proprietary mobile network).

According to the complainant’s press statement, the key argument “relates to the manner in which the dominant incumbents discriminate between their on-net and off-net effective prices, which has a dramatic and direct impact on smaller operators’ ability to acquire new customers.  The two dominant incumbents discount their effective on-net prices substantially while charging a premium for their customers to call off-net. This amounts to discriminatory pricing and is without doubt anti-competitive when adopted by dominant operators.”