Smokescreen Warfare Over Quadplay Dominance

John Petter, CEO of BT’s Consumer Division has called on Ofcom to formally amend the scope of its Digital Communications Review to include pay TV, citing high prices and poor outcomes for consumers arising from a lack of competition in pay TV.

In a speech to the Broadcasting Press Guild, Petter compared the falling prices, rising speeds and strong international performance of the UK broadband market with the high prices and bad outcomes suffered by UK consumers in pay TV. Petter hit back at Sky’s calls for the break-up of BT, describing them as a “smokescreen” designed to obscure the real market failings in pay TV, where Sky is the dominant player.

BT believes Sky pay TV customers are paying close to £50 a year more than the EU average for basic pay TV channels and potentially sums greater than £75 a year more if they opt for premium sports and movie packages*. Ofcom data also shows that UK household costs for pay TV have stayed high while broadband costs have fallen.

Commenting on the figures, BT Consumer CEO, John Petter said: “Whereas in the energy market regulators have criticised the Big Six operators, in pay TV Sky has a 64 per cent share, so there is really only the Big One. Relative to EU averages Sky customers are paying around a half a billion pounds more per year for the basic packages of pay TV channels*. Switching in pay TV is 50 per cent lower than the levels seen in broadband, so it is clear we just aren’t seeing the right levels of competition for Sky”.

Petter attributed the driving factor behind this difference to a lack of effective competition in pay TV. He contrasted the pay TV and broadband markets in terms of market concentration, switching and wholesale markets. The broadband market has four major players but none with over 32 per cent market share, this is in stark contrast to the pay TV market with one dominant player with a 64 per cent share leaving major barriers to entry for new players.

Switching in the broadband market is regulated and gaining provider led, this is in contrast to the pay TV market, where switching is unregulated and companies are able to “save” customers leading to low levels of switching. The broadband market is regulated at a wholesale level allowing all players access on an equal basis, whilst in pay TV there are weak wholesale obligations that only apply to Sky Sports 1 and 2.

Petter saluted the performance of BT Sport but said that it hadn’t changed the overall market dynamics given the dominance of Sky. He cited the fact BT Sport has attracted 2.4 million viewers who weren’t previously viewing Sky Sports, as evidence of a large unserved part of the population unable to pay the high prices demanded by Sky.

Sky’s decision to increase prices in response to the launch of BT Sport was described as evidence as being “based on a calculation that customers don’t have anywhere else to go”.

Petter described in detail each of the factors diluting competition in the basic pay, movie and sports segments of the pay TV market as contributing to an overall market failure entrenching the dominance of Sky. He noted that Ofcom’s approach to regulating the telecoms market had been successful in delivering positive outcomes for consumers and businesses, but called on them to apply the same degree of rigour to address competition problems in pay TV.

“We think Ofcom should heed the call of Sky’s biggest shareholder. James Murdoch once said in relation to Sky that 21st Century Fox fought for ‘a level playing field and to have competition policy applied with an even hand’. But when it comes to competition in pay TV, the message from Sky seems to be ‘talk to the hand’. We think Ofcom should make Mr Murdoch happy and give the UK a competitive pay TV market that is fit for the next decade”.

Paolo Pescatore, Director, Multiplay and Video at CCS Insight said “BT had to react in light of Sky’s announcement last week and repeated calls on the state of the fixed line broadband market; and for Openreach to be demerged. It is just the latest tussle between both companies at an important time when Ofcom is seeking to conduct a strategic review of the digital communications market. The timing of this is particularly important given that the last review was conducted a decade ago. BT makes a strong case, but the market has lacked a strong rival to Sky. Now with BT’s entry into sports, the competitive landscape is changing, but a provider cannot compete solely on sports – essentially it underlines the value of offering a vast array of genre.

Going forward there might be an argument for Sky to lower its wholesale charges to allow providers to make money. However, we firmly believe that telcos need to invest in acquiring the key content rights as well. Around half of all UK households have yet to sign up to a pay TV service, so there are plentiful opportunities to take video/TV to the masses. For this reason, we think that there is a significant opportunity to offer multiplay bundle services due to growing consumer appetite for them. Operators need to differentiate beyond pricing alone and this is where content will play an integral element. Both companies are coming from opposite spectrums, but are firmly on a collision course to compete head on in multiplay. For now BT seems well placed with its network assets, however it still lacks a strong line-up of content.”

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David Dungay

Editor - Comms Business Magazine