The European Union's anti-trust watchdog has asked for information from five of the continent's largest telecom companies about possible collusion.
Requests have been sent to Deutsche Telekom, France Telecom, Telecom Italia, Telefónica and Vodafone Group as well as the trade association GSMA.
The group, which has since disbanded, was known as the E5 and held several meetings, beginning from 2010, to discuss trade matters such as mobile payments.The commission said a request for information is the first part of an EU anti-trust probe, but did not suggest there was any immediate evidence of wrong doing. A spokesman for the EU Competition Commissioner said: 'The requests for information relate to the manner in which standardisation for future services in the mobile communications area is taking place. The Commission has not opened formal proceedings. These fact-finding steps do not mean that we have competition concerns at this stage, nor do they prejudge the follow-up.'
A spokesperson for the GSMA told the Wall Street Journal it had received correspondence from the EU and said it would respond in due course. It refused to comment further.
Robert Vidal, head of competition, EU and trade at law firm Taylor Wessing said: 'It's too early to say whether an investigation will follow, but a high profile information request can be damaging to a company's reputation. This highlights that meetings between competitors will always be of potential interest to competition authorities and should be treated with extreme caution.
'Meetings between competitors are especially risky in a concentrated market where the participants are restricted to a few, major players. It can give the wrong impression to customers as they may assume the telecoms companies are up to no good.
'This information request comes hot on the heels of the Commission's rejection of a regulatory holiday for telecoms companies. The industry has called for breathing space to allow it to invest in new infrastructure, but it may be that the Commission wants to send a clear signal that it is committed to open competition within the EU.'
Editor: Graeme Neill