AT&T may invest in Europe if EU sets more consistent telco rules

Telecom industry consolidation across Europe--including an end to roaming charges for phone calls and Internet use across national boundaries--would be a boon for the continent, European Commissioner Neelie Kroes said during an industry conference in Brussels.

Kroes has been forcefully advocating industry consolidation to make the continent's telecom services more stable and less competitive, a Businessweek article reports.

"We have listened to industry concerns so that pan-European deals can come onto the market, sustainably, available for all as soon as possible," Kroes said at the conference.

Besides eliminating roaming charges, the commissioner also wants to see policies enacted to make allocation of spectrum for wireless more uniform and predictable across more than two dozen countries that comprise the EU.

Of course, all her ideas haven't been met with open arms. European regulators have gone on record looking askance at her proposals and the European Telecommunications Network Operators' (ETNO) association made it clear that it isn't all that keen on regulating roaming charges.

"The proposal gives a negative signal to the investors' community" by creating the perception that "further regulation is always around the corner," said Luigi Gambardella, the ETNO's chairman who was also at the event.

He was less opposed to improved spectrum policies because that would improve the investment climate in Europe," he added.

As if to justify that, AT&T (NYSE: T) CEO Randall Stephenson, speaking at the same conference, said he sees a "huge opportunity for somebody" to reap big profits by investing in European markets with a better wireless policy.

"I continue to be fascinated and impressed by how slow mobile broadband is moving in Europe so I think of this as a huge opportunity for somebody," Stephenson said in a Reuters article.

Kroes reiterated that her goal is to reduce regulatory burdens by making rules across all the markets more predictable.

"That shouldn't involve more regulation in the sector," she said, advocating that "lifting regulation in competitive EU Internet providers can offer the services and Internet providers can offer the services and connectivity Europe needs."

If all goes well with the plan--which still needs approval across all the EU governments and the European Parliament--Europe would operate more like a single country with multiple telecom providers than a vast network of different operators running networks in proprietary countries.

"Bringing down barriers is ultimately good for the sector," she said. "But you can't do that without removing roaming charges, without removing the arbitrary high charges for calling across borders."

For more:
- Businessweek has this story
- Reuters has this story

Related articles:
The benefits of spectrum harmony
AT&T CEO reiterates interest in Europe, but Verizon steers clear
European regulators unimpressed with Kroes' single market plans

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