Third generation under scrutiny

EU looks into the latest mobile phone technology

BRUSSELS — EU regulators are to look into the sale of European sports rights to Internet firms and third generation mobile network operators, it was announced Friday.

Inquiry will consist of sending out questionnaires to sports rights agencies, broadcasters and mobile network operators to get an idea of whether Europe’s competition rules are being broken.

Brussels competition supremo Mario Monti said the kinds of practices he would be examining included the bundling of TV rights with new media/3G rights, the existence of embargoes favouring TV coverage over new types of coverage or the purchase of new media/3G rights on an exclusive basis.

“There is a need for a sector-wide approach which would clarify the application of competition rules and provide guidance to both the owners of the rights and those willing to buy them,” he said.

Europe’s emerging 3G mobile operators are desperate for sports content, especially soccer, to attract customers to their new services, which offer audio and video downloads to cell phones. Hong Kong-based Hutchison Telecom, which launched 3G services in Italy and the U.K. last year, has been working hard to woo Italians and Brits to its phones

with promises of on-demand soccer highlights beamed to the palms of their hands.

Brussels reckons that despite this, and despite the fact that 81% of the 15-country EU’s population own a cell phone, there are still just half a million subscribers to 3G services in Europe.

Soccer is also seen as a key driver for the take-up of broadband Internet.

Already many European clubs are offering online highlights of their games via their own big-bandwidth subscription services. European soccer governing body UEFA, meanwhile, enables fans across Europe to log on to and watch highlights, goals and footage from its prestigious Champions League tournament after midnight on match day.

Brussels has had mixed results in its recent attempts to regulate European dealings over sports rights.

This latest investigation follows hot on the heels of the recent spat between Brussels and the English Premier League over soccer TV rights — a stand-off that ended in a comprehensive defeat for the Eurocrats. England’s leading soccer clubs had angered EU officials by selling the rights to all their games to Rupert Murdoch’s satcaster BSkyB, but the regulators succeeded only in forcing minor concessions over the deal. However, they had more joy with German soccer clubs and UEFA, both of which agreed to change their rules for selling TV rights after intervention from Brussels.

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