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U.S. tech giants come under pressure from Europe’s telcos to pay for building the internet

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In Europe, the battle between U.S. Big Tech companies and telecommunications firms has reached fever pitch.
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Telecom groups are pushing European regulators to consider implementing a framework where the companies that send traffic along their networks are charged a fee to help fund mammoth upgrades to their infrastructure, something known as the “sender pays” principle.

Their logic is that certain platforms, like Amazon Prime and Netflix, chew through gargantuan amounts of data and should therefore foot part of the bill for adding new capacity to cope with the increased strain.

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“The simple argument is that telcos want to be duly compensated for providing this access and growth in traffic,” media and telecoms analyst Paolo Pescatore, from PP Foresight, told CNBC.

The idea is garnering political support, with France, Italy and Spain among the countries coming out in favor. The European Commission is preparing a consultation examining the issue, which is expected to launch early next year.

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‘Free riding’

The debate is hardly new. For at least a decade, telecom firms have tried to get digital juggernauts to fork out to support upgrades to network infrastructure. Carriers have long been wary of the loss of income to online voice calling applications such as WhatsApp and Skype, for example, accusing such services of “free riding.”

In 2012, the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association lobby group, which counts BT, Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, Orange and Telefonica as members, called for a solution that would see telecom firms strike individual network compensation deals with Big Tech companies.

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But it never really led to anything. Regulators ruled against the proposal, saying it might cause “significant harm” to the internet ecosystem.

After the coronavirus outbreak in 2020, the conversation shifted. Officials in the EU were genuinely worried networks might crumble under the strain of applications helping people work from home and binge films and TV shows. In response, the likes of Netflix and Disney Plus took steps to optimize their network usage by cutting video quality.

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That revived the debate in Europe.

In May 2022, EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager said she would look into requiring Big Tech firms to pay for network costs. “There are players who generate a lot of traffic that then enables their business but who have not been contributing actually to enable that traffic,” she told a news conference at the time.

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Meta, Alphabet, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Netflix accounted for more than 56% of all global data traffic in 2021, according to a May report that was commissioned by ETNO. An annual contribution to network costs of 20 billion euros ($19.50 billion) from tech giants could boost EU economic output by 72 billion euros, the report added.

Broadband operators are investing seismic sums of cash into their infrastructure to support next-generation 5G and fiber networks — 50 billion euros ($48.5 billion) a year, per one estimate.

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U.S. tech giants should “make a fair contribution to the sizable costs they currently impose on European networks,” the bosses of 16 telecom operators said in a joint statement last month. Higher prices of fiber optic cables and energy have impacted operators’ costs, they said, adding greater impetus for a network access fee.

The debate isn’t limited to Europe, either. In South Korea, companies have similarly lobbied politicians to force “over-the-top” players like YouTube and Netflix to pay for network access. One firm, SK Broadband, has even sued Netflix over network costs associated with the launch of its hit show “Squid Game.”

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The larger picture

But there’s a deeper story behind telcos’ push for Big Tech payments.

While overall revenues from mobile and fixed-line services are expected to climb 14% to 1.2 trillion euros in the next five years, telecoms services’ monthly average revenue per user is forecast to slip 4% over the same period, according to market research firm Omdia.

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The Stoxx Europe 600 Telecommunications Index, meanwhile, has declined more than 30% in the past five years, according to Eikon data, while the Nasdaq 100 has risen over 70% — even after a sharp contraction in tech stocks this year.

Telcos today serve as everyday utilities rather than the household brands that sold the hottest gadgets and services — like Nokia with its iconic cell phone brand. Faced with a squeeze on profits and dwindling share prices, internet service providers are seeking ways of making additional income.

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Video services have driven an “exponential growth in data traffic,” according to Pescatore, and better picture formats like 4K and 8K — coupled with the rise of short-video apps like TikTok — mean that growth will “proliferate” over time.

“Telcos do not generate any additional revenue beyond the connection for providing access whether that is fibre or 4G/5G,” Pescatore said.

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Meanwhile, the push toward the “metaverse,” a hypothetical network of huge 3D virtual environments, has both excited telcos about the business potential and caused trepidation over the mammoth data required to power such worlds.

What is the metaverse and why are billions of dollars being spent on it?

While a “mass market” metaverse has yet to be realized, once it does, “its traffic would dwarf anything we see now,” Dexter Thillien, lead technology and telecoms analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit, told CNBC.

Should traffic senders pay?

Tech companies, naturally, don’t think they should pay for the privilege of sending their traffic to consumers.

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Google, Netflix and others argue that internet providers’ customers already pay them call, text and data fees to make investments in their infrastructure, and forcing streamers or other platforms to pay for passing traffic could undermine the net neutrality principle, which bars broadband providers from blocking, slowing or charging more for certain uses of traffic.

Meanwhile, tech giants say they’re already investing a ton into internet infrastructure in Europe — 183 billion euros between 2011 to 2021, according to a report from consulting firm Analysys Mason — including submarine cables, content delivery networks and data centers. Netflix offers telcos thousands of cache servers, which store internet content locally to speed up access to data and reduce strain on bandwidth, for free.

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“We operate more than 700 caching locations in Europe, so when consumers use their internet connection to watch Netflix, the content doesn’t travel long distances,” a Netflix spokesperson told CNBC. “This reduces traffic on broadband networks, saves costs, and helps to offer consumers a high-quality experience.”

There’s also the matter of why internet users pay their providers in the first place. Users aren’t driven by which operator keeps them connected; they want to access the latest “Rings of Power” episode on Amazon Prime or play video games online — hence why telcos increasingly bundle media and gaming services like Netflix and Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass into their deals.

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The Computer and Communications Industry Association lobby group — whose members include Amazon, Apple and Google — said calls for “sender pays” fees were “based on the flawed notion that investment shortfall is caused by services that drive demand for better network quality and higher speeds.”

At a September event organized by ETNO, Matt Brittin, Google’s president of Europe, said the proposal was “not a new idea, and would upend many of the principles of the open internet.”

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No clear solution

A fundamental issue with the proposal is that it’s not clear how the payments to telecom companies would work in practice. It could take the form of a tax taken directly by governments. Or, it could be private sector-led, with tech firms giving telcos a cut of their sales in proportion to how much traffic they require.

“That’s the biggest question mark,” Thillien said. “Are we focusing on volume, the percentage of traffic from certain websites, what will be the cut-off point, what happens if you go over or under?”

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“The looser the rules, the bigger number of companies can become liable for payment, but the stricter, and it will only target a few (which will be American with its own geopolitical implications),” he added.

There’s no easy solution. And that’s led to concern from tech firms and other critics who say it may be unworkable. “There’s no one single bullet,” Pescatore said.

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Not all regulators are on board. A preliminary assessment from the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications found no justification for network compensation payments. In the U.K., the communications watchdog Ofcom has also cast doubts, stating it hadn’t “yet seen sufficient evidence that this is needed.”

There are also concerns relating to the current cost-of-living crisis: if tech platforms are charged more for their network usage, they could end up passing costs along to consumers, further fueling already high inflation. This, Google’s Brittin said, could “have a negative impact on consumers, especially at a time of price increases.”

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British regulator softens stance on Microsoft-Activision deal competition concerns

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An Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare video game is inserted into the Microsoft’s Xbox One video game console arranged in Denver, Colorado, on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022.
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The U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority on Friday said it has narrowed the scope of its investigation into Microsoft’s takeover of games publisher Activision, in a major reprieve for the U.S. tech giant as it pursues an expansion of its video game business.
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In February, the CMA published provisional findings from its probe into the takeover, stating at the time that the transaction may result in higher prices, fewer choices and less innovation. Among its concerns, the regulator flagged that the deal would cause a substantial lessening of competition in the console gaming market.

Since then, the regulator has received a “significant amount” of feedback from various industry participants on the deal. With this new evidence, the CMA now says it no longer believes the transaction will hamper competition in console games.

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“Having considered the additional evidence provided, we have now provisionally concluded that the merger will not result in a substantial lessening of competition in console gaming services because the cost to Microsoft of withholding Call of Duty from PlayStation would outweigh any gains from taking such action,” Martin Coleman, chair of the independent panel of experts conducting the CMA investigation, said in a statement Friday.

“Our provisional view that this deal raises concerns in the cloud gaming market is not affected by today’s announcement. Our investigation remains on course for completion by the end of April.”

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Shares of Activision Blizzard surged more than 6% in U.S. premarket trading. Microsoft shares were slightly lower amid a broad market slump.

The CMA announcement comes after the U.S. technology giant has also won support from some companies that were against the deal, or sitting on the fence.

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One of the major concerns from Microsoft’s competitors was that the transaction would block distribution access to Activision’s crown jewel franchise — “Call of Duty.” Last month, Microsoft said it signed a “binding 10-year legal agreement” to bring Call of Duty to Nintendo players on the same day as Microsoft’s Xbox, “with full feature and content parity.”

Additionally, Microsoft signed a deal with Nvidia to bring its Xbox games to Nvidia’s GeForce Now cloud gaming service. Microsoft said it would also bring the Activision games library to Nvidia’s service, if the acquisition closes. Nvidia was reportedly against Microsoft’s Activision takeover. 

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But Microsoft has yet to bring onside its biggest rival, Sony, which owns the PlayStation console. Microsoft President Brad Smith told CNBC last month that the company is offering Sony the same agreement as it did Nintendo — to make Call of Duty available on PlayStation at the same time as on Xbox, with the same features. Sony still opposes the deal.

Microsoft looks to allay EU fears over Activision takeover with Nintendo, NVIDIA deals

“We appreciate the CMA’s rigorous and thorough evaluation of the evidence and welcome its updated provisional findings,” a Microsoft spokesperson told CNBC via email.

“This deal will provide more players with more choice in how they play Call of Duty and their favorite games. We look forward to working with the CMA to resolve any outstanding concerns.”

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An Activision spokesperson told CNBC that the CMA’s updated provisional findings “show an improved understanding of the console gaming market and demonstrate a commitment to supporting players and competition.”

“Sony’s campaign to protect its dominance by blocking our merger can’t overcome the facts, and Microsoft has already presented effective and enforceable remedies to address each of the CMA’s remaining concerns. We know this deal will benefit competition, innovation, and consumers in the UK.”

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Microsoft still faces uncertainty from regulators in the U.S. and European Union. Smith travelled to Brussels last month to meet with EU regulators.

In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission filed an antitrust case against Microsoft attempting to block the Activision deal.

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Some major companies retain reservations about the acquisition, which includes Google parent Alphabet, according to Bloomberg.

CNBC’s Steve Kovach contributed to this report

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TikTok wants to distance itself from China — but Beijing is getting involved

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China and U.S. flags are seen near a TikTok logo in this illustration picture taken July 16, 2020.
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BEIJING — China says it would “strongly oppose” a forced sale of TikTok, making clear the government’s involvement with the social media giant that’s trying hard to distance itself from Beijing authorities.
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The Ministry of Commerce said Thursday that a sale or spinoff of TikTok from its Beijing-based parent ByteDance is subject to Chinese law on tech exports — which requires licenses for the export of certain technology based on national security concerns. ByteDance also owns Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok that’s popular in the country.

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“The Chinese government would make a decision in accordance with law,” said spokesperson Shu Jueting in Chinese, translated by CNBC.

Shu was speaking at the ministry’s weekly press conference, hours ahead of TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s testimony before a U.S. House of Representatives committee.

Lawmakers questioned Chew for more than five hours, and wanted clarity on TikTok’s ability to operate independently of Chinese influences on its parent.

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ByteDance did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Chinese Commerce Ministry’s remarks.

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The questioning did not appear to relieve U.S. lawmakers.

“At the end of the day, it was clear from the testimony that Mr. Chew reports to the CEO of ByteDance. ByteDance controls TikTok,” Cameron Kelly, visiting fellow at Brookings Institution, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” Friday. Kelly used to be a general counsel at the U.S. Department of Commerce from 2009 to 2013.

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Kelly said the evidence that ByteDance has legal control of TikTok increases U.S. lawmakers’ doubts over how well the app can demonstrate its independence through restructuring.

TikTok has a “Project Texas” plan to store American user data on U.S. soil — in a bid to show the company’s claims that mainland Chinese authorities have no access to them.

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Beijing … is now double-daring Congress and the Administration to ‘make my day.’

Daniel Russel

Asia Society Policy Institute

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“I don’t think a shutdown a ban or a complete divestiture [of TikTok] is needed. But I do think you have to separate that legal control,” said Kelly, noting that could be done through a trust structure. 

But the commerce ministry’s claim of control over a TikTok sale or spinoff indicates Beijing wants to be involved.

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“The Chinese government’s public declaration that it would block the sale of TikTok in the U.S. has little to do with protection of Chinese algorithms and technology and a lot to do with giving Washington a taste of its own medicine,” Daniel Russel, vice president for international security and diplomacy, Asia Society Policy Institute, said in a statement.

“Beijing, having heard [U.S. Commerce] Secretary Raymond’s lament that banning TikTok would infuriate voters under 35, is now double-daring Congress and the Administration to ‘make my day,’” Russel said. 

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The U.S. has increased restrictions on the ability of American businesses and individuals to work with Chinese businesses on critical tech for high-end semiconductors.

When asked about the commerce ministry’s remarks Thursday, TikTok’s CEO said the app isn’t available in mainland China and is based in Los Angeles. But he said the company did use some of ByteDance’s Chinese employees’ expertise on “engineering projects.”

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TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on March 23, 2023 in Washington, DC.

Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

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Chew also told U.S. lawmakers that China-based employees at its parent company ByteDance may still have access to some U.S. data, but that new data will stop flowing once the firm completes its Project Texas plan.

Official Chinese comments have previously emphasized that China-based companies should comply with local laws and regulations when operating overseas.

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It’s not immediately clear how China’s export control law, enacted in December 2020, might apply to TikTok.

Different types of exports are managed by different government organizations, “each of which has a separate regulatory system,” the EU Chamber of Commerce in China said in its latest position paper. It called for greater clarity on the roles of the different bodies involved with implementing the export control law.

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What’s next for TikTok?

The U.S. and China have increasingly invoked national security as a reason to control tech.

“To be fair, there really are indeed genuine national security risks associated with [TikTok] — and that is one reason why a ban of the app from government phones and military phones makes sense,” said Glenn Gerstell, senior advisor at Center for Strategic and International Studies on CNBC’s “Street Signs Asia” Friday. Gerstell was general counsel of the National Security Agency from 2015 to 2020.

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“As to the general public, I don’t see the strategic value in China understanding what the dance moves of a teenager in Minneapolis are. So the general public ban doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.

TikTok has more than 150 million users in the U.S. — or about half of the country’s population.

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It’s unclear whether the U.S. will ultimately force ByteDance to sell TikTok or prohibit use of the app in the country. The wildly popular app is already banned from federal government devices.

“We see a 3-6 month period ahead for ByteDance and TikTok to work out a sale to a US tech player with a spin-off less likely and extremely complex to pull off,” Dan Ives, analyst at Wedbush Securities, said in a note.

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“If ByteDance fights against this forced sale, TikTok will likely be banned in the US by late 2023.”

— CNBC’s Lauren Feiner contributed to this report.

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Crypto firm Tether says it has around $1.6 billion in excess reserves to back its USDT stablecoin

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Paolo Ardoino, Tether’s chief technology officer, said the company estimates that the excess reserve will increase by $700 million in the current quarter, which is not yet over.
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Cryptocurrency firm Tether estimates it will make $700 million profit in the March quarter, taking its total excess reserves to over $1 billion, the company’s technology chief told CNBC, revealing the latest figures for the first time.
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Tether issues the USDT stablecoin, which is pegged one to one with the U.S. dollar. USDT is backed by real-world assets such as fiat currency and U.S. Treasurys so that it is always one to one redeemable with the U.S. dollar.

Stablecoins are used by traders to move in and out of different cryptocurrencies without the need to convert money back into fiat currencies.

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Over the years, stablecoin issuers have been criticized for not being transparent enough with the type of assets they hold in their reserve to back their digital currency. Tether held commercial paper, or short-term, unsecured debt that is issued by companies. But Tether didn’t reveal the type of firms or geographical location of companies it had brought the debt from.

Tether eventually sold all of its commercial holdings and moved into U.S. Treasurys, which are considered a more stable and reliable asset. The company produces so-called attestations, which are reports produced by an auditor to attest to the company’s reserves and the assets it holds.

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The last report Tether released covering the December quarter showed it had more assets than liabilities.

Tether then revealed in February that it made $700 million in profit in the December quarter. The company’s total assets once liabilities are substracted amount to $960.6 million.

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Paolo Ardoino, Tether’s chief technology officer, said the company estimates that the excess reserves will increase by $700 million in the current quarter, which is not yet over. That would take Tether’s excess reserves to $1.66 billion. And it would be the first time Tether crosses the $1 billion mark.

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“So this money stays in Tether in the main company in order to further capitalize the stablecoin,” Ardoino said.

Tether makes money from various fees, such as a $1,000 withdrawal fee (with a minimum withdrawal requirement amount of $100,000); from investments in digital tokens and precious metals; and from issuing loans to other institutions.

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Circle’s wobbles help Tether

The value of all the USDT in circulation has grown substantially this month from $70.98 billion on March 1 to $78.14 billion on Thursday, according to CoinMarketCap.

That’s thanks in part to the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank this month. Circle, which issues a rival stablecoin called USD Coin, revealed it had $3.3 billion exposure to SVB. USDC lost its dollar peg as investors got concerned about the coin’s stability. Investors flocked to tether. After the U.S. government stepped in to guarantee depositors, USDC regained its peg after it said the $3.3 billion USDC reserve deposit held at SVB will be fully available to people.

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Ardoino revealed Tether’s estimated profit for the current quarter while defending the company’s record. When asked if Tether would be able to withstand an event like the SVB crisis, Ardoino asked why people are still questioning its reserves even after traditional lenders collapsed.

“First of all, seriously after Credit Suisse and all the others, all the banks that are failing you are looking again at Tether?” Ardoino said in reference to the instability at Credit Suisse, which eventually led to a regulator-brokered $3.2 billion deal for UBS to buy the Swiss lender.

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“Tether is making money and banks are failing. So if you have to put money somewhere, I guess that Tether is the most safe among all the choices,” Ardoino said.

CNBC’s Ryan Browne contributed to this report.

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