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Telecom mergers begin to border on a frenzy

An industry where structural change has been held up by a combination of regulation and state ownership is cramming 10 or more years of restructuring into as many months
IT'S MERGER mania in telecoms. Well, it's merger mania in several other sectors too, including oil, autos and financial services, but the revolution in the structure of the global telecommunications industry has a special urgency unparalleled elsewhere.

Indeed, the changes in ownership are coming so bewilderingly quickly that it is quite hard to grasp what the new structure of the industry might be in, say, 10 years' time. It is still harder to figure out the social and economic consequences of such rapid change.

The jumble of information, plans, ideas and rumours has become particularly tangled over the last few days. There are big, straightforward deals such as the bid by AT&T for MediaOne, or the earlier take-over by Vodaphone of AirTouch. There are big, amorphous deals such as the tie-up between AT&T and BT on the one hand and Japan Telecom on the other. And there are big, nightmare deals such as the proposed Deutsche Telekom/Telecom Italia deal.

I don't think I can recall any other proposed liaison that has attracted the "marriage made in hell" label quite so swiftly, and it would be astounding if the deal were to go through, let alone be a success. But the very fact that people come up with deals that ignore the cultural dimension in business, shows the fury of the tempest that is sweeping across the industry.

Let's try to sort out what's happening. There are, I suggest, four quite separate elements to the telecoms revolution.

First is deregulation/privatisation. An industry where structural change has been held up by a combination of regulation and state ownership is cramming 10 or more years of restructuring into as many months.

Second is a rapid fall in the cost of production, brought about mainly by the switch from copper to fibre optics, but also by other changes such as the falling cost of satellites. Third is the development of new technologies, which have turned mobile communications from a niche market into a mass one.

And finally there has been a surge in demand from data traffic. The Internet boom means that telephony will, in the space of one decade, shift from being a medium for transmitting speech to one for transmitting data.

The changes are related. For example, the pressure for deregulation has come largely from the changing pattern of demand and the development of mobile communications. The surge in demand could not have been accommodated had there not also been a technical change, which created much more supply.

But the forces for change are separate. There was, after all, a surge in mobile communications before the medium switched from analogue to digital. So in thinking through the new structure of the industry you are best to begin by looking at each of these factors.

Regulation: it is hard to see any significant barriers remaining for long, because the competitive nature of the business is such that ways will be found to get round them. For example, while national phone monopolies may notionally remain, they won't matter much in competitive terms. If prices of fixed-line connects remain out of line, users will switch to mobile, where costs are plunging and technology is racing forward.

So the barriers to restructuring won't be regulation or ownership but rather culture and language. You can see this already. The barriers to the German/Italian tie-up are cultural: who will run the show and how many people in which country are going to be sacked?

Next, the falling cost of producing a telecommunications service: here, I believe the collapse in transmission charges has hardly begun. Calls anywhere in the world are already effectively free on the Internet, for example.

Consider what has happened to the hotel telephone. Hotels have traditionally charged large sums for using the phone by the bed - but GSM technology means we now use our mobiles instead. Even the premium for mobility will disappear, and as it does it is perfectly possible that voice traffic will transfer almost entirely to mobiles. If this is right, the industry is going to see much of its present revenue stream cut away.

Within a decade telecommunications will so cheap that we won't even think about them. If that is tough for the industry, it will also be fascinating in social and economic terms for the rest of us.

Mobility: at the moment telecom groups that are primarily fixed-line are larger than those that are primarily mobile. It is at least plausible that this will change, and that having a line into a home or office will cease to be an advantage. Having a billing relationship may even cease to matter, for if prices come down enough we may buy our calls as pre- paid phone cards from the supermarket.

We know that users like mobility, so there ought to be some premium for it. What we don't know is how large that will be and whether a purchase relationship will be more appropriate than a billing one.

Finally, data traffic: yes, it will carry on its explosive growth for several years, maybe a generation, before it too becomes a mature business, and yes, there will be some money in carrying the data because the volumes will grow so rapidly. But this is a commodity business, not a high-value- added one, so the money will be made only by groups that are globally the lowest-cost producers. The inevitable result will be many more global mergers and partnerships.

What are the structural implications of all this? I don't think it is possible to do more than guess at the appropriate structure for the industry 10 years hence, except to say that the companies will have to strive to be either low-cost giants or clever niche players.

Look, for example, at the motor industry. The barriers in the path of the trend towards this motor industry model will be cultural and national. To what extent does a country accept the idea of its communications being provided by a foreign multinational? If the motor industry is any guide, not much. Maybe the problem with that German/Italian job is that it is about a decade before its time.