Operators cleared in Dutch 3G-collusion probe

The Dutch competition authority on Friday cleared two phone operators of suspicions of colluding during the country’s auction of third-generation (3G) mobile phone licenses last July.

The Nederlandse Mededingingsautoriteit (NMa), the Dutch competition authority, started an inquiry in November into the activities of Versatel Telecom International NV and Telfort Holding NV, a wholly-owned subsidiary of British Telecommunications PLC (BT), which were alleged to have conspired to sabotage the auction by cutting a deal.

The investigation by the NMa, which included searches in the offices of both the involved operators, found no evidence indicating violation of Dutch competition law before or during the auction, Versatel and Telfort said in separate statements.

The probe centered on a meeting Versatel and Telfort had shortly before the auction. Telfort alleged that Versatel offered to drop out on the first day of the auction. Since there were only six bidders for five licenses, such a move would have ended the auction immediately, leaving the five remaining bidders each with a cheap license.

Versatel has always denied making an offer to withdraw.

According to both operators the NMa has found there was a meeting, but that it was not meant to influence the auction.

Versatel, which unlike Telfort does not currently operate a mobile network in the Netherlands, continues to protest the design and the ending of the auction. During the auction the company had complained to the auctioneer and feels its complaints went unheard.

“We still strive to get our own 3G license. It offers advantages over having to team with a company that has won a license,” said Marc van der Heijden, chief regulatory officer for Versatel, adding Versatel is in talks about partnerships.

The Dutch 3G auction ended abruptly after 12 days of bidding when Versatel pulled out saying it had received a threatening letter from Telfort. The auction raised 5.9 billion guilders (US$2.3 billion), a disappointing amount for the government, which was hoping to raise 20 billion guilders.

Versatel, in Amsterdam, can be reached at http://www.versatel.com/. Telfort, in Amsterdam, can be reached at http://www.telfort.nl/. Nederlandse Mededingingsautoriteit, in The Hague, Netherlands, can be reached at http://www.nma-org.nl/.