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Eurofile: Empire Building

I say, Old Bean, welcome to my jolly new column, Eurofile. Don't much like that name, you know. I was pushing for "A Letter From Blighty," but Head Office said it had to represent the whole of Europe, and not just This Sceptred Isle.

Can't see why. I mean, it's we Brits that lead the way every time, while all those Continental loungers do is play "Follow My Leader." I mean, look at what they're up to with their fixed and wireless carrier combinations at the moment. They honestly think they're building an Empire. But it was us, the English, dontcha know, that invented the whole bally idea of having an Empire!

Not that you'd really call these tawdry little Eurobits an empire. More like a colony. There's France Telecom SA (NYSE: FTE) popping up all over the place with its mobile operator Orange SA (London/Paris: OGE). Then there's Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) with T-Mobile International AG, which is even making a nuisance of itself in the United States of George Bush. And as for the sodding Da– the Spaniards, I should say: Anyone would think Telefònica SA were using its mobile operator Telefònica Mòviles SA to run the whole of Latin Bleeding America!

Worse still, they're looking across the Channel and poking their soiled fingers at Britain's telecom pride and joy, BT Group plc (NYSE: BTY; London: BTA). It spun off its mobile operator, mmO2 plc, back in 2001, so the BarbariContinentals probably reckon they're one step ahead of the boys at BT.

But to be fair – something we Brits insist upon, even when talking about those blighters across the way – having a fairly substantial mobile operator's not such a bad idea for a European operator. I mean, the fixed-voice cash cow is already starting to dry up a bit, and today's youngsters might just settle for having only a mobile phone in the future – "fixed/mobile substitution" those marketing types call it. Good old voice is on a bit of a slide, then...

Table 1: European Traditional Fixed Revenues on the Wane
Q3 2003 ended Sept 30 Q3 2002 ended Sept 30 % change
BT domestic voice revenues �2,268 million �2,450 million -7%
Deutsche Telekom domestic voice revenues �6,119 million �6,511 million -6%
France Telecom domestic voice revenues �3,279 million �3,359 million -2.40%
Telefonica domestic voice revenues �1,851 million �1,906 million -2.90%
Source: Company data


And it looks as if there's a pound or three to be made, and quite a few new bodies to be picked up, in this mobile business too!

Table 2: Mobile Revenues on the Rise
Q3 2003 ended Sept 30 Q3 2002 ended Sept 30 % change
T-Mobile global revenues �5,920 million �5,105 million +16%
Orange global revenues �4,588 million �4,401 million +4.20%
Telefonica Moviles global revenues �2,668 million �2,312 million +15.40%
Source: Company data


Table 3: And Mobile Customers Just Keep Coming and Coming...
Q3 2003 ended Sept 30 Q3 2002 ended Sept 30 % change
T-Mobile global subscribers 57.7 million 51.2 million +13%
Orange global subscribers 46.9 million 43.2 million +8.60%
Telefonica Moviles global subscribers 50.3 million 35.8 million +40.60%
Source: Company data


So credit where credit's due. There's a lot to be said for putting one's fixed and mobile assets into one basket. There's all sorts of lovely bundling, and branding, and stuff they can do – and if this convergence ballyhoo pans out, they'll be able to stick all their traffic over one great wanking backbone.

Not only that, the chaps in the fixed business can lend their wireless brothers a hand with their business customers. The mobile operators are, not to put too fine a point on it, appallingly inept at the fine art of dealing with the corporates, and could use all the help they can get.

But if those foreign types reckon us Brits are out of the empire building game, they'd better think again. BT didn't ditch mmO2 just for the Holy Hell of it. It was just too bloody small, that's all. A tinpot operation in the Netherlands, the number four operator in Germany, and a bog-standard Irish outfit – not much support for Her Majesty's Network.

So what have those Continentals got to be worried about?

Well, BT's been busier than a BBC recruitment executive. It's sorted out its international business following the Concert cock-up with AT&T Corp. (NYSE: T). (Tony Blair doesn't appear to have learned any lessons about working with the Yanks from that foul mess, but that's another column.) And the British bulldog's cast off a lot of debt, too -- down to £8.8 billion at the end of September, compared with £13.1 billion a year earlier. Damned good show!

But it still doesn't have one of those big international mobile operators that the French and Germans have. So it's time for a bit of the old Dunkirk spirit. We Brits need to pull up our stockings and put the World Order back in shape. There's only one thing for it: We'll have to send BT down the aisle with an English rose – Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD).

Of course, Vodafone would probably have to make the first move, valued as it is at $172 billion, while embattled BT's worth just $28.6 billion.

But imagine that! Put BT together with 130 million mobile subscribers (and growing) and then we'll see what an Empire's really all about.

But best of all, imagine the look of horror on the faces of Olde Europe when they realized they'd been trumped. They'd be more envious of the plucky British spirit than ever before! Especially if we came up with a thumping good name like Britafone, eh what?

— Lord Bartram Finch-Beasley, Twelfth Marquis of Cummerbund, OBE, VC, KCB, GCIE, SARS, PETA, Contributing Pontificator, Light Reading

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