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French cellcos fined €534m for collusion

Orange, SFR and Bouygues Telecom fingered

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Three French mobile operators - Orange, SFR and Bouygues Telecom - have been fined a whopping €534m (£363m) for sharing information and rigging the country's cellphone market.

France's competition commission (the Conseil de la Concurrence) ruled that the three had acted against the best interests of consumers and the economy by sharing confidential information and divvying up the market for themselves.

The Conseil said this collusion had been going on between 1997 and 2003.

Orange has been fined €256m (£174m), SFR €220m (£150m) and Bouygues Telecom €58m (£40m).

Vincent Poulbere, a senior consultant at analysts Ovum, said the operators are likely to appeal the decisions although they could face yet further legal action from consumer groups.

"This is really bad news for the French operators, for two reasons: first, because of the record amount of the fine, second, because of the bad press resulting from this decision and the damage it will do to the operators' brands and credibility.

"We were surprised by the competition authority's findings about how operators exchanged confidential information and agreed on market shares," he said.

Orange, which is owned by incumbent France Telecom, rejected the ruling and confirmed it plans to appeal.

It described the ruling as "excessive" and warned that it could have a "serious impact on public confidence" in the mobile sector.

"The idea that it would be possible to control a market of roughly 40 million customers sourcing their products from 20,000 points of sale, is totally unrealistic. During this period, which was extremely dynamic for the mobile sector, the market share (gross sales) of the three mobile operators varied by several points on a monthly basis, reflecting the intense competition in the sector," it said in a statement.

Last month France Telecom was fined €80m (£54m) by France's competition commission for failing to open up its network to rival broadband providers. The telco also plans to appeal that decision too. ®

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