Five European telecoms facing antitrust complaint?

According to a new report, the five largest carriers across Europe have been meeting since 2010 to discuss industry topics.

The five largest European carriers could face an antitrust inquiry for meetings they've allegedly held since 2010.

The Financial Times, citing sources, reported that Deutsche Telekom, France Telecom, Telecom Italia, Telefonica, and Vodafone have been holding so-called "E5" meetings since 2010 to discuss a host of issues they face. Financial Times' sources say that the company's top executives discussed everything from Apple and Google to mobile payments.

Those meetings have apparently not gone unnoticed in Brussels, where the European Commission confirmed to CNET today that it has "requested information" from the carriers, as well as from the GSM Association.

"The requests for information relate to the manner in which standardization for future services in the mobile communications area is taking place," a European Commission representative told CNET.

The GSM Association, which represents the telecom industry, has confirmed to the Financial Times that it has received inquiries from the European Commission's competition office on what was discussed at the meetings, but did not say how it will respond to those actions.

It's not necessarily a violation of antitrust provisions for companies to meet. However, firms working together on industry issues can raise regulatory hackles. The carriers seemed to realize that, according to the Financial Times, which cited a source who said that attorneys were present at all the meetings and delivered to the European Commission notes from the discussions to allay any fears.

Carriers have long come under the regulatory microscope, due in large part to the similarities between their pricing models. In 2009, for example, all four major U.S. carriers--Verizon, AT&T, Sprint Nextel, and T-Mobile USA--were questioned by lawmakers after they all increased text-messaging rates. The companies quickly said that they were not working together and made their decisions independently.

"Especially in light of this litigation firestorm, we want to make it perfectly clear that AT&T sets the prices for all of its products on a unilateral basis," Wayne Watts, general counsel for AT&T, said in a written testimony. "There is no evidence to support an accusation that anyone at AT&T engaged in any inappropriate, much less illegal, behavior as alleged in these lawsuits."

For their part, the European telecoms have yet to speak out on the reported inquiry, and the GSM Association has not immediately responded to CNET's request for comment on the matter. However, the European Commission made it clear in its statement to CNET that its inquiry does not necessarily mean it's concerned about anticompetitive behavior.

"The Commission has not opened formal proceedings," the rep said. "These fact-finding steps do not mean that we have competition concerns at this stage, nor do they prejudge the follow-up."

 

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