Working with trade associations

Comms Business finds out more about the trade associations that work with channel companies, with insight into the role they play in helping resellers and MSPs navigate the evolving market.

Businesses and organisations across the Channel join a number of trade associations to support their business aspirations and to network with industry peers. The benefits of joining a trade association include representing and promoting your company’s interests and views in respect of regulation, legislation, technical standards, and licensing.

Trade associations also provide their members with up-to-date information relating to future developments and current issues, as well as facilitating a way for members to influence policy and opinion.

So, why join a trade association? Lee Turner, Comms Council UK member and head of industry engagement and regulatory affairs at Gamma, explained trade associations can be particularly helpful for smaller companies as they can be guided through regulatory changes and their voice can be amplified by their trade association.

Comms Council UK, or CCUK, represents and supports telecommunications companies that provide services to business and residential customers in the UK. The membership is a mixture of network operators, service providers, resellers, suppliers and consultants involved in a sector that is diversifying rapidly.

Turner said, “If you’re a small provider and haven’t even got the resource to go to some of the industry meetings, you can make your voice known to your trade association and that can be carried forward into all of those meetings. So, from a resource perspective, you get a lot of bang for your buck.”

Turner also pointed to the networking aspect of joining a trade association as a particular benefit, regardless of the type of business you are. He said, “Trade associations also hold regular face-to-face meetings, so you get the benefit of talking to other suppliers of your size or in the same market. Then you can either form relationships or have those discussions with people in the same boat.”

Crucially, trade associations can help members navigate any friction that might arise between providers. Turner said, “At CCUK, we have regular get togethers that tend to be more social affairs, but those are usually where the most business is done, or it’s where your network and your relationships are built up.

“One thing we do find is that we can circumvent quite a few issues purely through your contacts within trade associations. If we have a problem with another provider, I can pick up the phone and talk to their rep at CCUK, and we can usually sort things out.”

Enabling competition

Trade associations also play a role in enabling a competitive market. Federation of Communication Services, or FCS, is an industry association for companies delivering professional voice and data communications solutions to business and public sector customers in the UK.

Members use a range of delivery platforms to provide those solutions – whether that’s radio, mobile, copper or fibre – and the FCS champions and defends the role of the professional communications providers in the converging marketplace.

Itret Latif, CEO, FCS, explained that the membership has a large proportion of smaller communications providers (CPs), which gives the organisation a focus on the needs of that portion of the market.

Latif said, “FCS serves the characteristics of small CPs and the channel. We are always looking at what will happen to a new entrant or a small CP. Changes that we are facing in the marketplace – for instance, the gaining provider led processes that are being developed – we straight away look at what the requirement for a small CP is, and how that will need to be taken care of.

“Otherwise, some of the considerations that we raise on behalf of small CPs might not be taken into account. We make sure their interests are met.”

FCS championing the perspective of smaller CPs and new market entrants, Latif explained, opens up competition in the market. That creates an industry that is innovative and offers high-quality and fairly priced services and solutions.

Latif underlined the reality that some market conditions can make it difficult for competition to thrive. He added, “We are making sure the market is not stitched up in a way that allows just the incumbents to win. Volume discounts, for example, often mean just the incumbents benefit because how can you expect a new entrant to compete?

“You need to make sure the marketplace is fair, especially for regulated services. New entrants must be able to compete against larger providers.”

Knowledge sharing

Organisations like FCS and CCUK represent their members at a policy level, build coalitions to collaborate on industry initiatives and help members prepare for change.

Turner, from CCUK, discussed the importance of knowledge sharing. He said, “The other benefit of joining a trade association, for the smaller companies in the channel, is you get the benefit of companies with larger infrastructures who have dedicated regulatory or public affairs teams. Those individuals are members too and spread that education.

“They spend time with other members and say: in case you’re not aware, these are the new regulations, and this is going to impact you, or this is what potentially we might have to fight against. You get the benefit of a large resource pool from other companies and the expertise around your trade association that you may not necessarily have in house.”

Turner pointed out the different types of businesses that are coming into the market as technology evolves, and he explained this can give trade associations an important role.

He said, “One of the problems we’re seeing nowadays is, there a lot of people coming into the comms market who are not what we would call traditional telecoms operators.

“They don’t run networks. They don’t have fixed infrastructure. They may be application developers who then allow their application to make calls and to get numbers. At that point, as soon as they have numbers, they’re regulated.”

Once that happens, Turner highlighted those businesses have become a communications provider but “they don’t understand the implications of being a communications provider because we don’t have a licensing regime in this country”.

He explained, “You don’t have to register as a communications operator, but your operating model might make you a communications provider. And as soon as you do that, you fall under all of Ofcom’s regulations. And some of the software-based companies in the UK haven’t got a clue what their regulatory obligations are. By joining a trade association, you can quickly pick up that knowledge.”

Latif, from FCS, added, “In the telecoms world, anybody can become a telecoms service provider, but it’s very difficult to find out what the obligations are.

“Joining an association like FCS can be a quick way to understand what is expected, because you can read all the regulations from Ofcom but not really understand the specifics of what that means for your business. Being a member of a trade association gives you support to understand how to enter the market and be compliant.”

The weight of a consensus view

Trade associations also have a particular ability to find the consensus view from within complex debates or consultations. Those consensus views can be a lot more persuasive to regulators and legislators than individual perspectives from the industry.

Turner, from CCUK, explained, “A consensus view from competitors carries a lot more weight when approaching the regulator or legislators. And it also gives a voice to smaller providers who might otherwise have found it difficult to get their view across.”

Turner emphasised the challenge the Channel has in ensuring the business market is fairly considered within the overall communications landscape.

He said, “The biggest fight that we have is getting the voice of business communications out to the regulator and legislators, because it tends to be an ignored market. The focus for the regulator is on consumer protection and consumer harm but, at the end of every business line, there is a consumer. And, if the market doesn’t work, ultimately you do get consumer harm of one form or another.”

Turner pointed to the European Electronic Communications Code (EECC) implementation as a recent example of the business market not being adequately considered.

The EECC is an EU Directive that updated the regulatory framework for communications services. The UK government made clear that Ofcom should proceed to implement the end-user rights aspects of the EECC, and it made changes to the law to support that implementation.

Turner explained, “We had a lot of agreement, as an industry, about what we saw as a heavy-handed implementation in some cases and too light-handed in other cases.

“In particular, one of the problems that a lot of operators had was that, in a mixed economy market, where they were supplying both residential and business markets, having completely divergent regulation for those two markets is not helpful. We have this porous boundary in a lot of cases between the two markets. That’s the message we consistently hammer home to Ofcom.”

Latif, from FCS, agreed trade associations within the Channel help ensure the business community is not disadvantaged by sweeping changes.

Latif said, “There is this grey area between residential and business that is not really understood by Ofcom. That means some CPs might get caught in a regulatory environment that wasn’t intended to have a certain implication. Ofcom needs to understand the business market and business structure, because the channel is sophisticated and it’s complex.

“The layers of wholesalers means that, when you construct a product set, it could involve quite a long chain. There might be an obligation for one business, but the chain might not support that obligation, and that could be a problem.”

As such, trade associations can help the regulatory landscape move towards legislation that minimises any unintended consequences. Turner added, “Poor regulation actually leads to the opposite of what the regulator intends sometimes. It can put the prices up for the end user, rather than making it more cost effective.”

Differing uses

Turner’s role as head of industry engagement and regulatory affairs at Gamma gives him a unique perspective into the role of trade associations within the telecoms industry.

He explained, “At Gamma, because we’re a wholesaler, we look at trade associations slightly differently. We support our partners in these trade associations because a lot of them are members of trade associations. It gives us a chance to hear the views of our partners, and that might be a different view that we may not normally hear, and they can also see that we’re supporting them.

“We also have the view within Gamma that, when you’re talking to regulators or legislators, don’t be disingenuous. If you’re arguing X, don’t start arguing Y. Conversely, we also can use trade associations to support our own consultation responses. If there’s a consensus of opinion, which is the same as ours, then Ofcom might be receiving at least two to three responses which back up our position.”

Turner added trade associations can also be helpful in allowing members to anonymise their perspective. He said, “Medium to large providers also use trade associations for anonymising their position. So rather than having to go in as Gamma to Ofcom, and then having them get annoyed with us as Gamma, we can use trade associations to do that.

“Then the trade association can go in and complain to the regulator, but it’s not Gamma complaining. It’s an anonymised complaint. And that can be a really good vehicle for getting your view across.”

Looking over the horizon

Trade associations have shaped the direction of the UK channel, and they will continue to play a part in helping members navigate the evolving landscape. Latif, from FCS, emphasised how trade associations can help make market changes more palatable.

Latif said, “Trade associations benefit the channel by helping the channel understand what’s going on and looking over the horizon. As the market changes, such as the move to all-IP at the moment, we make sure the transition doesn’t disadvantage our members.

“Most of our members are part of the WLR community and they are moving customers to IP services, but that has to be done carefully. They must be allowed to transition in a way that doesn’t break their model too quickly.”

For Turner, from CCUK, trade associations will continue to play a vital role in ensuring members are involved in the consultations that drive the regulatory landscape for the industry. Channel companies need to ensure their perspective is considered, and trade associations are often a powerful way to get your view across.

Turner cautioned, “If a decision is made that you don’t like, or if that decision goes against your business model – don’t complain if you’re not at the table.”

This feature appeared in our December 2023 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.