News, views and commentary from the telecoms sector across emerging markets and developing countries worldwide

Friday, 17 July 2009

Mobile Merger Mania Mystery Tour 2: No Turkish Delight for T-Mobile?

Richard Moat: What's in store for the recently-appointed MD of T-Mobile UK?

We're going a bit off the usual 'emerging markets/developing countries' beat again today, I'm afraid. Bear with me. For a few reasons, this is a story I care about.

Having worried a little, however, about the possible effects of a Vodafone UK-T-Mobile UK merger on the area where I live (the northern bit of London's commuter belt), it now looks as if my fears are not to be realised.

Well, that's if I choose to believe my former colleagues at Informa Telecoms & Media. Informa's news site ran an article on Monday that seems to suggest any buyout of T-Mobile UK now looks unlikely. The article mentions a recent announcement by UK telecoms and media watchdog Ofcom which indicates that the regulator is satisfied with the level of competition in the country's mobile sector. According to analysts, the article contends, this means that the change caused to the UK mobile market by any consolidation would risk drawing regulator attention. One such analyst, Michael Kovacocy, of Daiwa Securities, is quoted: "Assuming rational operator behaviour, we would be inclined to believe that an already weak case for buying T-Mobile has been made weaker for the big three UK mobile players," says Kovacocy.

Although he also features a simular quote from Michael Kovacocy, the tone of an article written on the same day by Dominic White of Mobile News, however, is quite different. Two months ago, White asked whether recently appointed Richard Moat was about to become the shortest-serving MD ever of T-Mobile's UK operation. White feels now that this possibility "seems more likely after it emerged that Deutsche Telekom has hired investment bankers at JP Morgan to explore so-called 'strategic options' for the group." White argues that more often than not, language of this sort is code for putting the business up for sale.

As well as my fears for how a sale of T-Mobile UK might affect my local area (where the cellco has its HQ), I'd also be disappointed to learn of Richard Moat not being given the chance to get stuck into his new job, not least because I found him to be a friendly and helpful contact when I was working more actively in Europe than I am now.

For a long time, I took advantage of my familiarity with Central and Eastern Europe (having lived and worked there in the early-mid 1990s) to organise and host telco sector conferences and networking events in locations such as Prague, Budapest and Bucharest. In the latter, I met Richard Moat for the first time. Richard was then heading up Orange Romania, where, during his four year stint at the helm, revenues grew from from EUR 624 million in 2004 to EUR 1.31 billion in 2008. The cellco also retained its market-leading position, keeping just ahead of Vodafone Romania and dealing with a trading environment made more competitive by the arrival of new entrant in the mobile space RCS&RDS.

While speaking at the 2006 version of the Informa Telecoms & Media CEE region conference in Bucharest did not demand a major time commitment from Richard, I found he was happy to jump on a plane and take a day out of the office when the event moved to Prague the following year. As well as making a great presentation in Prague, Richard made himself available for a chat, during which he shared useful insights about the telecoms sector in Romania and the wider region. My impression is that Richard is the kind of CEO really appreciated by analysts and journalists as well as conference organisers because he is keen to find the time to share his views and contribute to discussions around issues facing the industry. During his stint in Romania, Richard seems to have been similarly generous with his time when talking to local telecoms sector magazine/news portal Comunicatii (which, by the way was always a useful media partner for my events). This interview with Comunicatii's Ion Vaciu, recorded in February, is an example of that:

Of course, Richard Moat - and Deutsche Telekom - may be able to stick rather than twist. As Dominic White of Mobile News notes, Germany's incumbent telco could hold onto its UK mobile business, but he contends that "what is known is that Vodafone has had a peek at the business and is considering making a bid that would prompt a massive shake-up of the UK mobile sector."

White discusses an issue previously raised here at DevelopingTelecomsWatch - that if Vodafone were to try and buy T-Mobile UK, or to merge their UK businesses into a 50:50 joint venture, it would command more than 40% of the UK market, which would be more than enough to attract the attention of the Competition Commission, which typically investigates any deal that gives a company more than 30% of a particular market. White notes, however, that analysts think a deal might get through the hoops, pointing out that in markets such as France and Germany there are operators with more than 40% market share. White also reminds us that the UK is the only major European market with five mobile networks, a throwback to the turn of the millennium when the government raised GBP 22.5 billion selling 3G licences, including one to the new entrant 3, which was mentioned by the article as the only contender for a deal with T-Mobile UK which would not attract a response from the regulators. This point is made, I assume, because of the late entrant having a significantly smaller share of UK mobile subs than any of the other four network operators.

According to WCIS, the UK mobile market is currently split as follows in terms of market share:

  1. O2 - 29.27%
  2. Vodafone - 21.38%
  3. Orange - 21.35%
  4. T-Mobile - 21.31%
  5. 3 - 6.69%
My feeling is that if 3 UK were somehow to tie-up with T-Mobile UK, it would surely be a case of the latter purchasing the former. I say this because of how much I've read lately about 3's parent company Hutchison Whampoa looking to raise cash rather than spend it. For example, the group has confirmed it is in talks to sell its stake in the Orange-branded Israeli MNO Partner. The group may also sell a stake in 3 Italia to investors from the Middle East, according to a Cellular News story earlier this month.

Dominic White believes that the UK 3G auction held earlier this decade, "and the way it was rigged to generate maximum value for the government" has hamstrung the mobile industry in this country ever since - too many networks and tremendous pressure on each player's profit margins. He notes that Deustche Telekom has already written down the value of T-Mobile UK after a year in which it underperformed the rest of the industry. According to White, Vodafone is considering a bid within the range of GBP 2.5-3.4 billion.

For Michael Kovacocy, these numbers do not look right. In the article, he warns any purchaser against overpaying and argues that only "a bargain basement price" of GBP 1-2 billion makes any sense.

Terry Sinclair of Citigroup, however, likes the idea of Vodafone picking up T-Mobile UK. In Dominic White's article, Sinclair is quoted as saying that the combination could boost Vodafone’s earnings by GBP 200-300 million within three to five years. Needless to say, continues White, that would mean a lot of cost cutting, which is the main reason for the tie-up: "if your revenues aren't growing enough the only way to boost profits is to squeeze your cost base." He feels that Vodafone would also be able to put more customers over one network and would have extra buying power and a greater footprint to roll out new products and services.

If it really is as hard for mobile operators to make good margins in the UK as has been suggested here today, this could provide a rationale for Deutsche Telekom seeking to get out of Britain and into somewhere which offers better prospects and/or a neater complement to the German telco's many operations in Central and Eastern Europe. DTW has previously noted suggestions that a favoured option could be some form of asset swap with Vodafone, whereby Deutsche Telekom would get its hands on Big Red's Turkish operation, which has struggled to compete effectively with market-leading Turkcell.

A fairly wide range of opinions, then, on whether the UK mobile market is about to consolidate. So it remains worth watching.

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