European Snub of 4G Prices Spurs Rate Cuts

Europe’s wireless carriers are falling behind their U.S. rivals in efforts to boost tariffs as they introduce faster service, with price cuts in France and Britain indicating phone bills will shrink further.

EE, the U.K. mobile-phone company owned by Deutsche Telekom AG and France Telecom SA, last month reduced rates for its fastest fourth-generation services, and Vivendi SA’s SFR unit slashed prices in France by as much as 25 percent on packages built around quicker data transfers. In Germany, the first major western European market with 4G, Vodafone Group Plc has cut the cost of its most expensive plans.

The discounts, announced just a few months after EE and SFR began offering 4G, suggest that carriers may be giving up on a bet that European consumers will pay more for faster downloads of music, YouTube videos, and other data-heavy content.

“European telecoms are deflationary,” said Benoit Maynard, a telecommunications analyst at Natixis in Paris. “We’ve never seen revenue per user increase for more than a quarter or two in the main European markets. 4G isn’t going to change that very much.”

After years of sliding prices for wireless packages, executives including the chiefs of France Telecom and Vodafone have said they hoped 4G premiums would push customer bills up to levels comparable to the U.S. But heavy regulation in the region and stiff competition have made that goal more difficult to achieve, said Maynard.

Shrinking Bills

In the U.S., mobile-phone bills have risen to an average of almost $50 a month from $41 five years ago, according to research from Sanford C. Bernstein. During the same period in Europe, that number declined to $32 from $41.

Verizon Wireless, the largest U.S. mobile-phone company, was able to charge an average of $147 a month in the fourth quarter of 2012 for its shared data plan, which can include multiple devices. AT&T Inc.’s individual plans brought in an average $65 a month in the same period.

As mobile traffic has grown exponentially with the spread of smartphones such as the iPhone, wireless carriers have had to invest to increase capacity. But the additional traffic hasn’t translated into revenue.

Capital expenditure, including network investments, will grow 6.8 percent this year at Europe’s largest carriers -- Vodafone, Telefonica SA, Deutsche Telekom and France Telecom -- data compiled by Bloomberg show. Revenue will decline 2.8 percent in the same period, the average of analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

Price Trap

European carriers last year vowed to spend billions to bolster their networks. Falling into a price trap now could mean they’ll risk repeating the mistakes they made last decade on 3G, the technology that powers older networks.

“It’s difficult for operators to charge a premium for 4G in the future as they don’t really charge a premium for 3G today,” said James Crawshaw, an analyst with S&P Capital IQ in London. Customers in Europe have shown that while they won’t pay for higher speeds, they are ready to ditch service providers that don’t offer them, he said.

In Germany, Vodafone has moved 410,000 of its 35 million clients to 4G since March, when the service was rolled out, spokesman Kuzey Esener said. The faster technology hasn’t yet been a major factor in increasing user revenue, he said.

Lagging Stocks

Vodafone Germany eliminated a 10-euro ($13.60) 4G surcharge for its most expensive tariffs when it overhauled its pricing structure in October. Now, customers get access to the faster network for 80 euros, versus 100 euros plus the extra 10 euros previously for a comparable tariff. The surcharge still applies to cheaper contracts. Deutsche Telekom and Telefonica’s German division also charge an extra 10 euros per month for 4G.

Vodafone fell 1.7 percent in London today, after sliding as much as 2.5 percent for its steepest decline in seven weeks. France Telecom slid 4.1 percent to the lowest level in two months. Telefonica fell 3.9 percent in Madrid, and Deutsche Telekom lost 2 percent on the Frankfurt exchange.

Europe’s biggest phone companies have trailed the Stoxx Europe 600 Index, which rose 7.3 percent in the past 12 months. France Telecom dropped by 30 percent, Telefonica lost 25 percent, Vodafone slid 2.6 percent and Deutsche Telekom was little changed.

Verizon Communications Inc., which co-owns Verizon Wireless with Vodafone, and AT&T each rose about 17 percent in the same period. Today, AT&T slipped 0.8 percent at the close in New York, while Verizon Communications lost 0.1 percent.

Hutchison Attacks

Three, the EE rival owned by Li Ka-shing’s Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., today said it will offer 4G this year without a price premium across all smartphone packages.

“It will be negative for the U.K. operators if Three does undermine their efforts to extract a premium from 4G,” Espirito Santo analysts wrote in a note today. “As with 3G, it is likely to attract a disproportionate number of unprofitable, data-hungry customers which we do not think would be sustainable without compromising the quality of its network.”

EE said it believes it can maintain a premium for 4G services and that some of the cheaper plans, such as the 31-pound ($49) contract, come with higher upfront costs for devices. The U.K., which charges less for plans than other parts of the world, has more room for increases, said a spokesman who asked to be named citing company policy.

French Cuts

In France, SFR CEO Stephane Roussel said on Jan. 22 the company will lower prices, a shift from two months earlier when he predicted that speedier packages would bolster 2013 sales and help average revenue per user rebound next year.

SFR’s cuts put extra pressure on France Telecom, which has said it will charge an extra 5 to 10 euros a month for 4G when it starts offering the service in April. France Telecom CEO Stephane Richard said the introduction of 4G, which will cost 1 billion euros over six to seven years, is vital to winning more customers. “Customers will pay,” he said in an interview in October.

Auctions for the airwaves that carry 4G signals have shown that the spectrum also bears a hefty price tag. Spain raised 1.65 billion euros and France received 3.5 billion euros from spectrum sales in 2011. In December, four carriers paid the Dutch government a total of 3.8 billion euros -- more than expected -- sinking KPN and Vodafone’s shares and prompting KPN to cancel its dividend.

In the U.K., EE has a head start on 4G because it is the only carrier already with the necessary airwaves. The company is vying for additional spectrum with carriers including Vodafone, Hutchison and BT Group Plc in an auction that started last month, with the U.K. government projecting proceeds of 3.5 billion pounds.

“There are still questions being asked around the return on investment for 4G,” said Mark Newman, an analyst at researcher Informa Plc. “The big issue is, does 4G generate incremental revenues?”

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