Perhaps the most concerning thing about the telecoms industry is not the frequently expressed fears about stagnating revenues or OTT threats but the fact that while operators accept change is needed, they are not entirely sure what that change should be.

The problems facing operators were underlined again this week at the launch of the 2014 DigiWorld Yearbook. Telecoms services revenues continued to fall for the fifth year in a row, the France-based think-tank reported, with growth of 2.5 percent.

According to DigiWorld, the challenges to operators are threefold. First, the consumer-cheering price wars across the continent are stopping operators from investing in the latest infrastructure.

Second, the move towards a single pan-European market could lead to some Europe-wide power players. Finally, operators are struggling to make the margins or gain the scale required to reinvent their business model, as the likes of Google and Facebook continue to eye up the telecoms space.

So where does the industry go from here? Opinion was split as to whether the flurry of recent M&A activity was a good thing for the industry. Simon Towler, Head of Spectrum, Broadband and International ICT Policy at the UK's Department of Culture Media and Sport, said the deals were "a sign of health" for the telecoms industry but he was the one of the few optimistic voices.

Yves Gassot, CEO of IDATE, the company behind the yearbook, warned that "consolidation was not a strategy".

Getting to the point where a deal can actually be made is a problem, delegates heard, let alone the effect of any market correcting remedies put in place by regulators.

Anne Bouverot, GSMA Director General, said regulators have gone "too far" and that remedies were hindering further investment that operators make in their networks.

While the current vogue for operators taking over cable companies, such as SFR's acquisition of Numericable, looks set to continue, DigiWorld UK Director Jean-Michel Chapon told European Communications it is not a guaranteed solution for struggling European operators. The problem is, he claimed, no one really knows what the answer is.

"The solution might be finding new business models... in Europe, we are saying that we can't go on like this," he said.

Panellists suggested that operators buying cross-border rivals did not offer the economies of scale snapping up a new business might suggest.

Differences between borders, unharmonised spectrum and competing in a different market may create new problems rather than solve existing ones. The myriad of European regulators was also a major stumbling block.

Glances across the Atlantic, where operator M&A is on the cards with a potential Sprint/T-Mobile deal, finds a market that is also hamstrung, albeit for different reasons.

Mark Falcon, Head of Economic Regulation at Three, commented: "The industry is being pulled in two directions when it comes to profitability and the regulatory approach. The US has more investment but consumers pay much higher prices. That's not a good thing from a customer perspective.

"Europe has much lower prices but has much less profitability. In the UK, the average operator makes an average return on capital of two percent. That's not sustainable."

That may be so but operators need to find the answer, and soon. 

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