TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Israel’s mobile phone market looks set to consolidate as concerns grow that cut-throat competition is undermining firms’ ability to invest in infrastructure, leaving Israel trailing other nations despite its reputation as a high-tech leader.
Five years ago, an Israeli family might pay $300 a month for mobile phone services. Today, a family of six can get all its calls, messages and 10 gigabytes of data for as little as $30 a month.
The 90 percent price drop stems from reforms introduced by the government since 2011 to boost competition and stop what it saw as price gouging by a trio of companies.
Consumers have gained, but operators are suffering - profits have been wiped out, share prices and dividends have been cut back and capital spending has fallen 20-40 percent since 2010.
Despite its world-leading technology, Israel now lags behind other OECD countries in communications infrastructure.
Israel is just starting to roll out fourth-generation mobile networks, several years behind most OECD countries.
The government is also concerned about a drop in Israel’s ranking in Internet speeds. At 46 megabits per second, Israel is far below the OECD average of 77, despite being a tech hub.
The lagging infrastructure led the government to worry its reforms may have gone too far and damaged investment.
“We have a problem with the implementation of the reform because the companies don’t have enough money to invest in infrastructure,” Shlomo Filber, director general of the Communications Ministry, told Reuters.
The government is now considering allowing consolidation in the market that would enable prices to rise and permit companies to make more profit to plough back in to infrastructure.
Filber said he is not opposed to mergers, as long as there is enough competition and no negative impact on infrastructure.
That contrasts with the tougher line on telecoms mergers being taken by European regulators, who have scuppered a mobile deal in Denmark and voiced scepticism that bigger operators will spend more on network upgrades.
Having started with three operators and then expanded to 10, Israel is heading back to four. Two small virtual operators, which piggyback off other networks, are merging and several companies are bidding to buy upstart Golan Telecom.
A bidding war appears to be brewing for Golan, which in August hired an investment bank to explore options, including putting the company up for sale.
No. 1 operator Cellcom is reviewing a possible purchase of Golan as is Bezeq Israel Telecom’s unit Pelephone, while HOT Telecom is also reportedly interested.
HOT may have the best chance of securing regulatory approval since if it merged with Golan it would still have fewer subscribers than each of the three incumbents.
Golan was one of half a dozen new providers that Moshe Kahlon, communications minister from 2009 to 2013, allowed in to the Israeli mobile market to increase competition.
Kahlon also expanded the license held by HOT, owned by Frenchman Patrick Drahi’s Altice.
The new entrants offered calls, texts and internet packages for as little as $15 a month, a rate the incumbents - Cellcom, Partner and Pelephone - struggled to meet. As revenue sank they slashed spending and laid off thousands of workers.
This year, profits at Cellcom, Partner and Pelephone are expected to be about 85 percent lower than in 2011. Over 1.2 million of their 9 million subscribers have moved to new firms.
Consequently, they say they don’t have the resources to invest in high-speed networks or in fixed-line reform aimed at encouraging Cellcom and Partner to compete in Internet and TV.
The situation was further complicated this year when the government awarded six companies 4G radio frequencies, including a new player, Xfone Mobile. The tender was supposed to improve surfing rates and enable operators to charge more money from 4G users. Instead, it led to another potential competitor.
The Communications Ministry believes monthly package prices should be around the OECD average of 20 euros.
“The starting point for the Ministry of Communications is that roughly 3 billion shekels ($770.5 million) is invested annually in fixed and mobile networks and operators need to be able to generate sufficient returns to allow them to continue to make those investments,” said Citi analyst Michael Klahr.
While it may take a few years, the Communications Ministry expects Cellcom and Partner to bounce back with new “growth engines” stemming from a soon to be deployed ultra-fast fiber optic network that will allow them to provide new services.
Additional reporting by Leila Aboud; editing by Luke Baker and Adrian Croft