Increasing demands by mobile operators for consolidation across Europe are unlikely to be fulfilled anytime soon as the tough financial conditions forcing the need for change make deals difficult to agree.

Regulators are also reluctant to wave through deals which might threaten the competition and low prices they see as more urgent than the need for operator investment in ever faster networks.

Consolidation is likely to take place in Greece and perhaps Portugal first, but the wider shake-up that operators believe they need in their larger Western European markets still faces many challenges, not least differing opinions on valuations and wider group strategies.

We are in a capital intense business, where you can only make investment if there is a limited number of players, the deputy chief executive of France Telecom , Gervais Pellissier, said this week.

The need for consolidation across Europe has been a key talking point at the annual Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecoms conference, with executives arguing that combining low pricing with increased investment is becoming untenable in maturing markets.

Pellissier pointed to his domestic market as an exemplar.

France is about to go against the grain with the impending launch of a fourth operator Iliad , which Pellissier said had already forced prices lower as the existing operators squared up to the new competitive environment.

In France eventually, probably at the end of the decade, we will come back to three operators, but we will have to wait for some time ... before convincing the regulator, he said.

The pulse of the regulator is most likely to be taken first in Greece, where the second and third operators in the three-player market -- Vodafone and Wind Hellas -- have opened talks about some kind of merger.

With consumers in Greece slashing spending due to higher taxes and increasing unemployment, the two groups have said they have little choice but to try.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the largest operator in the market OTE said this week that it would support the deal and expected the regulator to agree, even though it would likely result in a stronger competitor.

A shake up in Portugal could also take place if the state-owned bank decides to sell stakes it owns as part of a country-wide drive to pay down debt.


The more complicated problems come in the more mature and highly competitive Western European markets such as Spain, Italy and Germany, where consumers are also feeling the pinch.

The head of Dutch operator KPN said a deal between his E-Plus business in Germany and Telefonica's O2 Germany would make huge sense but said neither appeared willing to sell.

There is clearly value to be created in in-country consolidation in Germany, Eelco Blok said.

Morgan Stanley analyst Nick Delfas told Reuters that an exit from Germany for Telefonica would refocus attention on its performance in the Spanish market, which has been hit hard by the economic downturn. Telefonica is also constrained from a cash perspective in any deals it would like to make.

Possible partners could consider a 50-50 joint venture to pool network and investment costs, similar to the one formed in Britain between France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom, but that is also unlikely to suit either player.

Germany is proving a vital market for KPN as it struggles at home and the group is unlikely to want to give up control without a large fee.

In Spain, analysts have said France Telecom's Orange could buy TeliaSonera's Yoigo but TeliaSonera said it felt under no pressure to leave the market, where it has mostly held up well in the tough conditions.

Orange is also in talks to exit Switzerland, where the regulator blocked a previous plan to merge with Sunrise , and it wishes to exit Portugal and Austria but has said it will be difficult in the current market.

Vodafone Chief Executive Vittorio Colao, who has withdrawn from several markets in the last year where it did not control assets, said consolidation was needed in European markets if operators were to be able to invest in new networks.

He suggested that perhaps just two operators would build high quality data networks in each country and Russian group Vimpelcom , which has recently bought into Italy, agreed that the network build-out would determine much of the debate.

In a country like Greece or Portugal there is definitely an argument that to allocate more capital in the current circumstances, it makes sense to have consolidation, with certain consumer safeguards, analyst Delfas said.

In other markets the return on capital of the marginal players is low. So there's an inevitable consolidation that is going to occur.

(Additional reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by David Cowell)