KPNQwest collapse hands future back to big players

News analysis: The future belongs to the big, old telcos, as well as national and regional service providers

Whatever the outcome of the KPNQwest bankruptcy, the telecoms landscape in Europe will have changed for good, according to analysts, and the competitors who are scrambling to snap up the company's customers. "KPNQwest is no longer a business," says Christian Moeller, regional president of Sprint Europe. "The employees have been sent home and the customers have been instructed to move to different networks." He says he doubts whether the network will have much value: "There is significant over-capacity at the network level." What goes, with KPNQwest, is the idea that cabling up Europe with fibre is a good use of venture capital. The alternative providers that sprang up in the 1990s all expected a boom, and were stung by the dot-com crash. "At one time, there were 17 pan-European networks being built," said Richard Webb, European analyst at Infonetics Research of San Jose, California. "They all had duplicate links." Now banks know that EBITDA is so dubious a measure of a telco's success, they will be deeply unwilling to lend money to any similar ventures in future: "Just what have banks got to see from a service provider?" asks Webb. Until a couple of months ago, KPNQwest's figures looked very good compared to other European service providers. Without this funding, providers will fall back on their home markets. "The surviving European carriers will become more regional," said Webb. Already KPN, in withdrawing from KPNQwest, has limited itself to the Benelux countries. Others are focusing on the Scandinavian, Mediterranean, Western European or Eastern European regions. The exception will be Colt Telecom, whose continued existence Webb attributes to its ownership of metropolitan fibre in the City of London and elsewhere. "Metro fibre still has value, to provide access to customers," said Webb. But big customers will still need international links and, for these, they will return to the old-established multinational players, like Sprint, AT&T, Deutsche Telekom and BT. "There will be about three truly global operators," said Sprint's Moeller. But those players will need help to meet customer needs. "We're not about to open 15 points of presence in the UK," he said. "We need local partners." That is where the national and regional players will come in. "It is anyone's guess how many there will be," said Moeller, but he knows he will need partners like Belgium's Belgacom and Denmark's TDC. There are other options: "network integrators" such as Vanco, who own no bandwidth but put together custom networks for users from the capacity of different providers may do well in the fallout of KPNQwest. However, the big players will do their best to dismiss them as small and unreliable: "It's an arbitrage game," said Moeller. "They show no real commitment to customers." So KPNQwest will boost the big, old players, as they offer a comfort zone to nervous customers, while Europe's national players, which once saw international vistas opening before their eyes, will be cut back to size. "It is a challenge for the industry to find a balance between revenue and cost structure," said Moeller. "In the long term, KPNQwest will look like a blip on the screen."

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