There has long been a debate in Brussels over access by non-Spanish satellite providers to the digital TV free to air Spanish market, along with complaints about the amount of allegedly preferential State aid that the Spanish national and regional administrations have given to local DTT operators.
The background goes back to before 2010 when Spain switched from analogue to digital transmission, with Cellnex Telecom (formerly Retevisión) and 34 per cent owned by Abertis Infrastructure, responsible for the country-wide DTT distribution, and Hispasat (also currently majority-owned by Abertis) for satellite distribution.
Cellnex/Retevisión was fined €14 million by the Spanish Competition Authority for abuse of its dominant position, but little changed in permitting access to the Spanish market, and the State aid continued via various agreements with Spain’s regional governments.
A law was introduced (Law 7/2009) by the Spanish government for the unserved DTT areas which stated “all TV broadcasters jointly must authorize their signal to at least one satellite operator in that area” and which it is now alleged totally favoured the Cellnex/Hispasat relationship.
SES opened a number of cases in 2009 before the EU Competition Authority (EU/CA, within the Directorate General/DG Comp) which resulted in a 2013 decision declaring illegal and incompatible the state aids provided to DTT by the Spanish government. More than €300 million of State support was identified to have been paid, and – it is alleged – continue to be paid at a rate of at least €60 – €70 million annually for the operation.
All the EU/CA decisions were favourable to SES except for one decision that was annulled by the European Court of Justice on formal grounds recently, and where the Commission is expected to reissue this decision shortly.
In the meantime, most Spanish regional governments have largely ignored these rulings, argues SES. The position today is that despite some 50 different court actions – at regional and national level – the situation in Spain remains mostly unchanged.
SES insiders say the law must be changed to permit competition in the Spanish market because it is simply discriminatory and wholly contrary to EU law. SES points out that certain broadcasters have specifically refused to allow retransmission of their channels as part of a satellite free-to-air project in the Spanish region of Navarra which would use SES satellites, and thus preventing the project to move forward.
Spain must also provide to the EU details as to how they will utilise the upcoming second stage ‘digital dividend’ will be implemented and how the next batches of DTT frequencies will be implemented (by June 2018). SES says their concern is that Spain will continue providing state aid to DTT, and continue to support local infrastructure and ignore competition from non-Spanish satellite operators.