UPDATE 1-EU briefing signals nod for Austria telecoms merger

VIENNA Thu Nov 22, 2012 11:25am EST

VIENNA Nov 22 (Reuters) - European Union anti-trust regulators are set to brief national authorities next week on Hutchison's planned takeover of Orange Austria, in a move likely to signal EU approval for the deal.

The Austrian competition regulator, the BWB, said it and all the other EU national regulators had been invited to a meeting in Brussels on Nov. 27, at which the BWB planned to voice its concerns about the merger to the European Commission.

The calling of such a meeting is normally a signal that the Commission itself has no further issues, and subsequent approval is generally a formality.

The BWB said it intended to make sure that its concerns about consumer protection were heard.

"We do still have concerns," a spokewoman for the BWB told Reuters. "We don't believe that all our concerns have been addressed. We want to make sure that there is no harm to Austrian consumers."

The Commission is not obliged to take into account the opinions of the advisory committee of national regulators, but will publish them alongside its final decision.

The 1.3 billion euro ($1.7 billion) acquisition agreed in February would reduce the number of mobile operators in Austria to three from four, although the combined carrier would still be the country's smallest with market share under 25 percent.

Hutchison Whampoa's Austrian unit is currently the smallest of the country's mobile operators, and Orange the second-smallest. The market is led by Telekom Austria , followed by Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile.

The EU decision will be scrutinised by investors and telecom bosses across Europe because of the wider implications it is likely to have for the future prospects for consolidation in much larger four-player markets like Germany and Spain.

Teliasonera is now seeking to sell Spain's smallest mobile player Yoigo, and two other Spanish operators, France Telecom and Vodafone, are examining possible bids that would take the market from four to three players.

Executives of KPN, Vodafone and France Telecom among others have called on Brussels to change their tough stance on telecom mergers so as to allow the companies to find solutions to shrinking sales and profits.

A Commission spokesman said the body never commented on current merger investigations.

"This is an ongoing investigation and we will take a decision on Dec. 21," he said.