Telecom Italia's Fixed-Mobile Divorce

| About: Telecom Italia (TI)

The fixed mobile divorce at Telecom Italia (NYSE:TI) has taken me a bit by surprise, as TI guys are some pretty visionary fixed-mobile convergence [FMC] advocates whom I regularly bump into on the conference circuit.

But really, it's not about FMC. Even on the most optimistic forecasts, the majority of mobile customers will be non-FMC for at least the next 5 years, especially if like Italy they are in very pre-pay centric markets.

The thing that will determine the value of a mobile operator like TIM will be the boring, mundane cellular margins. Driven by voice tariffs, costs of customer acquisition & network build-out, and the whether increasing data revenues can outstrip falls elsewhere. Given that Italy is about to get MVNOs it's a fair bet that prices for the majority of users will come down precipitously, irrespective of FMC, mobile TV, premium SMS or any of the other niche services.

Therefore from an investment point of view, the core of TIM's valuation may well fall - so TI is taking a decision to offload it first, ideally to someone a bit more bullish/naive, or to be kind, someone who owns so much content they reckon they've got a better chance of foisting expensive mobile content on users who will be paying less for their phone calls.

In fact, one of my main pitches around FMC will be that it's biggest impact will not be on re-substitution of mobile by fixed/WLAN, but the impact of WLAN as a pricing lever, even if it's not used.

And while the leading fixed operators have already made the transition to an IP-centric future (especially Telecom Italia, which has had an IP & VoIP core network for years), mobile operators are only just starting. TI's fixed business plans have now built-in the threat from VoIP and "off-portal" services. Plus there's all sorts of opportunity for fixed assets deriving value from things like digital TV.... and, as BT has proven, you don't actually need to own a cellular network to offer FMC or MVNO services.

Put simply, the larger fixed operators have had 10 years to work out how to make money as providers of "smart pipes", while mobile operators are still utterly dependent on their vulnerable vertically-integrated access+service business models.

The question I would ask TI would be.... have you already agreed on MVNO terms with TIM?

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