Earlier this year Communications Minister Simon Bridges wrote to the Commerce Commission asking it to investigate competition in the mobile market.
Last Friday the Commerce Commission confirmed the study will go ahead.
The Commerce Commission says study aims to “better understand how mobile markets are developing and performing, particularly around the competitive landscape and any emerging competition issues”.
In his letter, Bridges noted that, unlike many other countries, New Zealand does not have thriving mobile virtual network operators.
Mobile virtual network operators
MVNOs are a feature of many mobile markets around the world. They can account for a large slice of the market. In Australia MVNOs are about 10 percent of the mobile market.
Often run by well-known consumer brands, MVNOs buy wholesale services on existing mobile networks. They then sell them to customers without needing to invest in infrastructure.
MVNOs can increase competition and give consumers greater choice. They also tend to reduce prices and squeeze margins.
New Zealand’s mobile carriers are not impressed. Spark, in particular has spoken out. The company says there is no case for new mobile regulation.
The company’s general manager regulatory affairs John Wesley-Smith is quoted in a notice to the NZX on the study. He says: “We have three world-class networks delivering prices that are well below OECD averages and three mobile network operators that are ploughing significant investment into an intensely competitive market.”
This is largely true. Seven years ago before 2degrees entered the market, New Zealand mobile prices were high by international standards. Today prices are a touch below international averages.
Moreover, margins have dropped. While the mobile networks are solid businesses, they are not awash in profits. It took until this year for 2degrees to make its first profit.
That alone tells you the market is competitive.
It also speaks volumes that 2degrees, the relative newcomer and the smallest mobile carrier, is not calling for more regulation. In the past it has been the beneficiary of intervention.
You could argue, the carriers almost certainly will argue, that consumers are well served by the existing competition. From this point of view the market settings appear to be right.
And yet not everyone is happy. Last month the NBR carried a report saying Vocus general manager, consumer Taryn Hamilton believes his company cannot grow its mobile business without regulatory intervention.
Vocus has an MVNO agreement with Spark. The Vocus brands, Callplus, Slingshot and Orcon offer mobile services. There is also a 2degrees MVNO agreement with The Warehouse.
In market terms these deals are a freak show. The existing MNVOs don’t add up to more than about one percent of the total mobile market. And that estimate may be generous.
Elsewhere in the world MVNOs can be seen as a positive by carriers.
Often the customers who choose an MVNO are the ones who would already be looking to move away from their existing accounts. If they choose an MVNO on the carrier’s network, the bulk of the revenue they generate stays with the carrier. There’s churn, but not churn to a rival carrier.
A new kid on the block
The other carrier-point-of-view argument in favour of boosting MVNOs in New Zealand is that it would keep out a fourth network. None of the existing carriers would welcome a new competitor.
In the past that may have seemed unlikely in a small market like New Zealand. However the market dynamics have changed.
New Zealand has four sizeable telcos: Spark, Vodafone, 2degrees and Vocus.
Vocus’ parent company faces challenges at the moment and is focused elsewhere. However, Vocus has been an aggressive investor in the past. It could be again.
Unlike smaller telcos, Vocus can buy spectrum. It could bid for new spectrum licences. It could build a fourth mobile network.
If the company decides mobile is straegic and can’t get what it considers to be a reasonable MVNO agreement with existing carriers, this is a plausible strategy. Let’s face it, mobile is stratgic for every sizeable telco.
Given this, Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees might do well to see the Commerce Commission study in a more positive light. Being forced by the regulator to offer more generous MVNO agreements would be preferable to facing a new rival.
Who’d want that?