Robin Saphra: Colt Telecom

With Colt Telecom needing to engage with lawyers across the Continent, it’s little wonder legal director Robin Saphra wants a pan-European regulator. By Malar Velaigam

The telecommunications sector is constantly under the glare of the regulatory spotlight, with issues such as allocating finite infrastructure, data protection and managing competition lingering over the industry.

For Colt Telecom’s commercial, legal and regulatory director, Robin Saphra, these issues span a plethora of jurisdictions. “Being a European company with European operations means we have more to deal with in terms of regulatory issues,” he says. “The lack of a single uniform regulation restricts competitiveness and increases the cost of our business.”

Saphra is not alone in his view. A number of industry players have expressed a need for a pan-European regulator, with the EU’s Commissioner for Information Society and Media Viviane Reding slated to propose the move in the forthcoming EU review of the telecommunications regulatory framework this month.

“The issue is that regulators are more focused on monitoring consumer markets rather than the business markets,” Saphra vents. “Regulation hasn’t looked at promoting the industry.”

Saphra speaks from a wealth of regulatory law experience. He originally joined Colt in October 2005 to head up its regulatory team and only assumed the role of legal head following the departure of Colt general counsel Jane Forrest in November 2005.

His grasp of the regulatory issues surrounding the industry have proven just as useful in his now-combined role, and he is currently embroiled in a number of dialogues with regulators on these matters.

One such dialogue revolves around British Telecom’s (BT) raw copper lines, which Colt and its competitors (such as Energis) have to scramble to access via leasing contacts regulated by Ofcom.

“We have to secure our access to this limited infrastructure,” says Saphra. “So we have to depend on the local incumbents to provide our service.”

Ofcom is currently conducting a strategic review of this system of allocating BT’s resources to telecoms service providers across the UK, and Saphra has appointed the head of DLA Piper‘s non-contentious telecoms group Purvi Parekh to advise on the matter. Parekh and Saphra and his team are looking into how the functional separation of BT’s infrastructure and consumer-facing arms could be successfully structured.

DLA Piper also advises Saphra and his team on all matters relating to Colt’s voice over internet protocol business across Europe.

For a head of legal with 16 lawyers in nine European countries, these copious regulatory pitfalls can prove to be quite a pebble in Saphra’s shoe.

Under Saphra’s current model, there are three UK-based lawyers who handle what he calls “headquarters work”, which is the general corporate work related to the group’s operations, ranging from IP-related matters to employment issues.

A further three lawyers focus on UK-related legal matters, with two lawyers dedicated to German legal affairs and two focused on legal matters pertaining to France. The jurisdictions of Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Italy and Spain each house one dedicated lawyer, while Denmark, Portugal, Sweden and Ireland do not have any dedicated lawyers.

“For these four jurisdictions I rely on external local law firms and use between two to four firms per country,” explains Saphra. “Europe is lacking a full-service firm, which is why we use so many different firms.”

Saphra’s country-based lawyers liaise and coordinate work to the external firms with Saphra’s clearance. For universal service regulations and interconnection disputes in France, Colt has used Paris-based Hogan & Hartson partner Winston Maxwell, but tends to turn to Bird & Bird and DLA Piper for most of the group’s Europe-related work.

Saphra is still ironing out the creases in his legal structure following a corporate restructuring last year, which saw Colt re-domicile its holding company to Luxemburg in a bid to reduce costs in an increasingly competitive industry.

Under the reorganisation, Colt delisted from Nasdaq and created a new holding company in Luxemburg. The new holding company also carried out a £304m equity issue and retained Colt’s listed status on the London Stock Exchange. Saphra used Slaughter and May, which is usually brought in for Colt’s M&A work, to advise on the transaction. Corporate partner William Underhill led the team from Slaughters, with US firm Sullivan & Worcester appointed to advise on US law.

“We spent a lot of money on legal services last year,” admits Saphra. “In fact, the legal spend last year was double the usual expenditure.”

Saphra adamantly claims that the in-house team has not changed as a result of the reorganisation, although he has since added to the team. Earlier this year, he brought in three lawyers to create the “headquarters” general corporate team. Two of the new hires were from NTL and Viacom, with the third lawyer joining from Berwin Leighton Paisner.

And Saphra is still on the expansion campaign, looking to further develop this team (www.thelawyer.com, 1 October) to keep more matters in-house.

It’s all change for Saphra, in-house and out; quite similar to the industry as a whole.

Name: Robin Saphra
Organisation: Colt Telecoms
Title: Commercial, legal and regulatory director
Sector: Technology, media and telecoms
Reporting to: Chief financial officer and chief administration officer Tony Bates
Turnover: E1.8bn (£1.25bn)
Number of employees: 4,000
Legal capability: 17
Legal spend: E3m (£2.08m)
Main law firms: Bird & Bird, DLA Piper, Field Fisher Waterhouse, Slaughter and May
Robin Saphra’s CV:
Education:
1982: BA, University of Cape Town
1989: GDL, City University
1990: LPC, College of Law
Work history:
1992: Associate, Allison & Humphreys
1995: Partner, Allison & Humphreys
1997: Director of legal and regulatory, One2One (now T-Mobile UK)
1999: Director of strategy and regulation, T-Mobile International, Bonn
2002: General counsel, BTG, London and Philadelphia
2003: Director of legal and regulatory, Dubai Internet City, Dubai
2005: Director of commercial, legal and regulatory, Colt