The corrosive effects of rising nationalism and the sheer complexity of conducting business on a global scale has made leading tech executives concerned about their companies’ ability to trade freely and secure the regulatory and other government approvals they need to compete successfully. These and other issues surfaced during a candid hour-long discussion between Hogan Lovells’ counsel Tom Sugrue and corporate leaders from some of the world’s most formidable players in the telecommunications sector, gathered at the Washington D.C. Ritz Carlton for a strategic legal summit.
Nationalism represents a rapidly growing threat to Vodafone’s global business Megan Doberneck, said. Doberneck is the President and General Counsel for Vodafone Americas Inc., the US subsidiary of Vodafone Group Plc, one of the world’s largest wireless telecommunications companies, which provides service to more than 400 million customers across 70 countries. According to Doberneck, even multinational companies such as Vodafone, which has extensive in-country employment and billions of dollars in direct national investment, have started to encounter concerns that regulatory authorities attribute to their ostensibly “foreign” ownership. Vodafone recently published its 2017 Digital Rights and Freedoms Report, including an unprecedented 30-country study, prepared with the help of Hogan Lovells, on law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ access to customer data.
Gerry Oberst, Senior Vice President of Global Regulatory & Governmental Strategy of SES, agreed. SES, a global leader in satellite communications, has operations in so many countries and must comply with so many different legal and regulatory regimes, that even obtaining the regulatory approvals necessary to allow in-country operations can prove challenging. Ensuring ongoing compliance once SES is authorized to do business in a country poses an even greater risk, he said.
According to Oberst, Hogan Lovells’ global scale has helped SES’s small regulatory team stay ahead of the changing mix of laws and regulations that affect its business. Oberst said he looks for outside legal advisors who not only can help SES comply with rapidly changing local rules and policies, but also can offer insight into the complex mix of economics, social trends, institutions, and politics that are continuing to affect national policy in the countries in which SES operates. A firm with presence and expertise across multiple jurisdictions can help provide SES with the type of timely, real world insight it needs, Oberst said.
Len Kennedy, who serves as General Counsel of Neustar, said he looks for many of the same qualities in the legal advisors he retains. Neustar was founded nearly 20 years ago to help phone carriers “port” numbers to different providers. Portability allowed residential and business customers to keep the same number even if they switched landline phone companies and, by 2003, Neustar had extended number portability to mobile phones, which allowed consumers to keep their landline numbers when they “cut the cord” to rely on mobile phones alone.
Neustar’s business has evolved since then. By managing complex datasets, Neustar now offers real-time information and analytics for telecommunications, entertainment and on and off-line marketing services. Neustar helps clients identify online prospects and ensures traffic is routed to the correct network address. Neustar also offers services that can stop a variety of online attacks.
“We’re the biggest tech company you’ve never heard of,” Kennedy said.
Hogan Lovells’ ability to evolve with Neustar’s business needs – and anticipate the challenges changing markets can create – has proven especially valuable to the business, according to Kennedy.
“Change is happening so rapidly and profoundly that clients need help in seeing what is coming and adapting quickly,” Kennedy said.
Access to radio spectrum resources poses another major challenge to businesses in the mobile telecommunications sector, according to the Kathleen Ham, T-Mobile USA’s Senior Vice President for Government Affairs. When the U.S. Federal Communications Commission first announced plans to auction 600 MHz spectrum for wireless broadband use, Ham indicated T-Mobile was both excited and apprehensive. She said T-Mobile had seen the “Big Two” – AT&T and Verizon – hoarding spectrum in the past and worried they would do the same in this auction. The 600 MHz band is extremely valuable low-band spectrum, which all operators need to cover less urban areas because the signals travel further and reach deep indoors because the signals penetrate walls better.
With the help of Trey Hanbury and other lawyers at Hogan Lovells, T-Mobile worked with the FCC to establish a market-based “spectrum reserve” that prevented the two dominant carriers from trying to deny smaller competitors access to those critical low-band resources. By the time bidding closed in April of 2017, T-Mobile had spent nearly $8 billion to become the single largest winner of 600 MHz licenses in the auction.
“With the low-band spectrum we’ve now acquired, we plan to roll out 4G LTE broadband using 600 MHz spectrum starting this year and we will begin deploying nationwide fifth-generation or 5G in 2019 when the standards are complete,” Ham said. T-Mobile will be the first carrier in the nation to offer near gigabit speeds on LTE and the first wireless provider to offer true 5G solutions for the Internet of Things, she added.
Satellite companies, too, need access to spectrum, according to Oberst. Among his many responsibilities at SES, Oberst oversees the regulatory and advocacy work on spectrum policy. Oberst said SES is monitoring spectrum access carefully because terrestrial wireless operators have begun eyeing longstanding space-station frequencies in the C-, Ku- and Ka-band frequency range to support new terrestrial deployments. Hogan Lovells’ global reach has helped SES ensure the company puts its existing spectrum resources to use as quickly as possible. According to Oberst, Hogan Lovells has helped SES secure market access in numerous countries with regulatory regimes that vary wildly in their degree of transparency, complexity and even-handed administration.
Despite the vastly different legal needs of SES, Neustar, T-Mobile, and Vodafone, these companies’ leaders agreed on one point: they want lawyers who can provide them accessible, actionable advice quickly and cost effectively. The type of seamless and meaningful engagement these leaders say they want from their legal advisors can only occur if their outside attorneys have a comprehensive understanding of the telecom sector. And while that depth of experience is often hard to find, that quality is something the panelists have found – and value – in Hogan Lovells.