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Mexico telecoms regulator reins in Slim and his empire

Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim speaks during the presentation of a digital platform, which was created in partnership with the Carlos Slim
Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim speaks during the presentation of a digital platform, which was created in partnership with the Carlos Slim

By Tomas Sarmiento and Christine Murray

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico's telecommunications watchdog unveiled a slew of regulations on Friday to claw back the massive telephone business of billionaire Carlos Slim, but said it would not order a break-up of his companies for now.

Mexico is trying to open up its phone and TV industries to more competition following last year's passage of a major telecoms reform that targets the vast market shares enjoyed by Slim and the country's no. 1 broadcaster, Televisa.

Slim's America Movil controls about 80 percent of Mexico's fixed-line business via its Telmex unit and some 70 percent of the mobile sector through its Telcel unit. Customers have long complained about high prices and shoddy service.

As was expected, the Federal Telecommunications Institute (IFT) declared America Movil "dominant", and therefore needs to be subject to tougher regulation. That will include banning the company from charging national roaming fees.

The IFT also declared that Slim's bank Inbursa and conglomerate Grupo Carso were dominant in telecommunications because they were part of a group with the same "economic interests" as America Movil.

"The measures also prevent evasion of regulation through a subsidiary," said Gabriel Contreras, head of the IFT, which has sweeping powers to regulate the market, including the authority to break up companies found to be impeding competition.

Contreras noted the measures would in general be implemented within 30 days. But he said no break-ups were planned "at this time", and that they would only be ordered as a last resort.

The IFT said its anti-trust measures would be reviewed after two years, whereupon it could opt to take stronger action against dominant players, or ease the regulatory burden.

It was not immediately clear whether the IFT could or would order tougher measures before the two years were up.

The regulator also imposed measures including infrastructure sharing and regulation of interconnection fees, and prohibited Slim from acquiring exclusive rights to broadcast in Mexico high-profile events such as the soccer World Cup finals.

Last year, America Movil secured rights on all media platforms to broadcast the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

America Movil shares were flat most of the day, but closed 1.57 percent lower. They are down 15 percent this year compared with an 8.9 percent fall in Mexico's IPC index.

Both Inbursa and Grupo Carso said they were analyzing the IFT's decision and considering their response. Inbursa shares closed down 0.74 percent, while Grupo Carso fell 0.91 percent.

The rulings on Carso and Inbursa surprised many analysts, who said it meant the IFT was serious about reining in Slim.

"They are saying 'I'm blocking Slim wherever I can'," said Gerardo Roman, head of stock trading at the Actinver brokerage in Mexico City.

Slim has long aspired to penetrate the lucrative pay TV market, where he has a big presence in most of Latin America. But he has so far been barred from the domestic market.

Earlier on Friday, Televisa, which controls more than 60 percent of Mexico's TV market, and which has long been accused of wielding too much political power, said it will be forced to share infrastructure.

GOLD MINE

Slim struck gold when Mexico privatized its telecoms industry in the early 1990s, using money generated by his phone business to build a vast corporate empire spanning mining to retail that gave him one of the world's largest fortunes.

The IFT's dominance rulings are part of a larger telecommunications overhaul and a key milestone in driving competition in Mexico's telecoms and broadcasting sectors.

They have raised expectations that Mexico might finally tackle the extraordinary power enjoyed by a few companies in Latin America's second-largest economy.

Nevertheless, the so-called secondary laws to implement last year's telecoms bill have yet to be passed, which could create scope for a legal battle over how to interpret the reform.

Both Slim and Televisa were highly effective in using legal injunctions to thwart efforts to regulate them in the past.

Televisa said the IFT also ruled that the company cannot hold a stake in a dominant telecoms operator. Its shares extended losses following the announcement, ending the day more than 2 percent lower.

"All of the resolutions and actions from the IFT affect Grupo Televisa in many areas associated with its (TV and pay-TV) businesses," the company said.

Earlier on Friday, the IFT detailed the bidding process for concessions to create two new national television networks that would weaken the duopoly of Mexico's two biggest players, Televisa and TV Azteca.

Together, the two broadcasters control about 95 percent of the broadcast television market.

The Ve Por Mas bank said the IFT decision was bad news for Televisa because it would dent revenue, restrict potential new business and create more competition since the company would be forced to share its infrastructure with rivals.

Shares of TV Azteca, which stands to benefit from the reform, were up more than 3 percent at 8.15 pesos.

($1 = 13.1454 Mexican pesos)

(Additional reporting and writing by Gabriel Stargardter and Alexandra Alper; Editing by Simon Gardner, Kieran Murray, Dave Graham, Ken Wills & Kim Coghill)

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