French operators get approval to share networks, but with conditions

French mobile operators will be able to ink network sharing deals after the country's antitrust authority gave its approval on a limited basis. The antitrust authority said it would closely monitor the market to ensure that competition is maintained.

"It's a path that we are opening," said Bruno Lasserre, the  chairman of the Autorité de la Concurrence, according to the Wall Street Journal. "But it seems completely compatible with maintaining competition in network infrastructure."

The antitrust body said that operators will only be able to share antenna sites and towers in  rural areas, but left open the possibility for them doing to in urban areas as well. Lasserre told Les Echos that the Autorité de la Concurrence favoured the creation of a joint venture to handle operator network sharing given it would be easier for the authority to control.

He added that any sharing requests would be judged on the level of cooperation being proposed by the operators, the size of the companies involved and where network sharing would take place.

"We do not want consolidation in the sector through mergers or acquisitions," Lasserre told Les Echos. "To finance the investment in LTE networks, it will be necessary that operators take other routes, with the sharing of infrastructure being one option."

Since late last year, French operators have been privately discussing an array of potential network-sharing deals to survive the fierce price war that is underway in the country, according to the Journal, which cited unnamed sources. As such, the French government responded in November by directing the antitrust body to rule pre-emptively on such deals.

Separately, the Autorité de la Concurrence told Iliad's Free Mobile it should look to end its roaming deal with France Telecom by 2018 at the latest. The deal has been heavily criticised by rivals Bouygues Telecom and SFR as enabling Free Mobile to delay the deployment of its own network, with both operators now calling for greater scrutiny of the rollout of the low-cost provider's infrastructure.

Iliad pays €500 to €700 million a year to France Telecom under the terms of their contract through 2018, although either can choose to terminate the contract in 2016, according to Reuters.

For more:
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this Les Echos article (translated via Google Translate)
- see this Reuters article

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