BERLIN -- In many ways, the travails of Europe's telecommunications operators have come to resemble the Continental power politics of the 19th century.
An alliance for third-generation wireless services here, an invasion to grab fixed-line business there. All the while former state-run monopolies and national champions plot their strategies to become global telecom contenders.
In fact, you can almost see the executives of the Continent's leading telcos sitting down to that old board game of world conquest,
, in an all-out battle for Europe's telephony customers.
While last week saw
beat a strategic retreat and
earnings gave evidence of further foreign expansion, the coming week also will have plenty of action for the many investors watching the fray.
The battle for 3G wireless will continue Monday, as Switzerland auctions off four universal mobile telecommunications system licenses to five bidders. While the Swiss auction is small potatoes compared with the previous contents in Germany, Italy and the U.K., any reminder of how much Europe's telco operators have forked out for 3G over the past year is likely unwelcome by shareholders.
Bidders have been dropping like flies prior to the start of the auction, as telcos look at their pocketbooks and reassess the value of the tiny Swiss market.
left the field Friday, dealing yet another blow -- albeit a small one -- to the company's pan-European dreams.
British Telecom took plenty of lumps from the UMTS beast last week as well. Unable to handle the high costs of 3G, BT had to announce a dramatic restructuring and drastic scaling back of its international plans, as investors became increasing concerned about the company's swelling debt.
While shareholders will continue to mull whether BT's proposed revamp will ever amount to anything, two other big U.K. telecom players will report first-half earnings next week. Pan-European wireless heavyweight
will present its figures on Tuesday, and
Cable & Wireless
will follow suit on Wednesday.
Away from the equity markets, the ailing euro is bound to stay on investors' minds as well. Last week saw the
European Central Bank
intervene repeatedly in the foreign exchange markets on behalf of the beleaguered currency as it again neared the 86 cent level.
While many observers don't believe the ECB's
will raise borrowing costs when it meets next Thursday in Frankfurt, lest it choke off growth in Europe, the weak euro increases the chances of importing inflation as foreign goods become more expensive. That makes it all the more likely the bank will continue to intervene in the forex markets, but if the euro does not recover on its own at some point soon, the ECB will have little choice.
"The ECB is unlikely to wait too long for the currency to deliver," says Catherine Lee, an economist for the
Royal Bank of Scotland
. "If intervention fails and the euro heads lower, the ECB will have no choice but to jack up rates aggressively."
But before any draconian rate hikes come, the ECB probably will continue to roll the dice and back up its earlier interventions even if it has to act without the help of the U.S.
Federal Reserve. In at least that respect, Europe's central bankers will mimic the region's telcos by playing their own version of Risk.