Competition watchdog 'minded to refuse' permission for Sure/Airtel-Vodafone merger

Two of the Channel Islands' three mobile operators announced plans to merge last year. Credit: ITV Channel

Jersey's competition regulator has said it is "minded to refuse" permission for two of the Channel Islands' telecoms companies to merge.

Sure and Airtel-Vodafone announced plans to join forces in October 2022, saying "the market is small, crowded and fully penetrated."

The companies said consolidating their businesses would bring about "long-term sustainability and drive future investment".

If approved, the merger would leave just JT and Sure as the two mobile networks serving the Channel Islands.

For that reason, the JCRA has said it cannot approve the plans.

The regulator says the proposed merger is likely to "substantially lessen competition" and choice for islanders.

It says while Sure and Airtel-Vodafone are the smaller of the three Channel Islands' mobile networks, Airtel "remains an effective competitor" with a substantial share of Jersey's mobile market.

The competition watchdog said if the merger went ahead, the two remaining telecoms companies - JT and Sure - would be "unlikely" to face any new competition.

That is based on the fact there have been no new entrants to the market in the last few years, and as each mobile network requires control of part of the wireless spectrum to operate on, there are limits to how many networks can operate mobile masts.

Sure says merging with Airtel-Vodafone would create a "stronger, more effective competitor" to JT. Credit: PA

As both Sure and Airtel-Vodafone operate in Guernsey too, ordinarily mergers would need permission from the GCRA - however, the island's Economic Development Committee put forward proposals for States Members to review the plans instead.

But the committee's Vice President, Deputy Steve Falla, disagreed with politicians intervening in two private businesses' dealings: "We have a regulator in place - the GCRA - and a competition law in place, and we needed to bypass both of those to make a proposal to allow the deal go through. I did not think that was appropriate.

"If there's something wrong with the regulatory model or the law, then that's what we should deal with - not turn a blind eye to it to allow a deal to go through."

Following Jersey's decision, the committee has U-turned and withdrawn its policy letter proposing they suspend the competition law and debate the takeover in the States.

  • Deputy Falla says he disagreed with his committee's decision to bypass the GCRA.

Responding to the JCRA's decision, Sure's CEO Alistair Beak said: "We're naturally disappointed with the news; however, we believe this is absolutely vital for strong competition, value for money, and providing the very best services to consumers.

"While it's disappointing news, we're going to work extremely hard in addressing the competition factors the regulator has raised and therefore we feel optimistic about the future."

The JCRA's decision is yet to be finalised. ITV News understands it is expected to be announced towards the end of July 2023.

Before that, a final period of consultation will take place - people or companies affected have until 5pm on Wednesday 19 July to have their say.

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