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

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Mobile Merger Mania Mystery Tour: calling in Africa, Turkey, the UK and points worldwide

T-Mobile UK campus, Hatfield, Hertfordshire: uncomfortably close to DTW HQ

Late last month, I turned the gaze of DevelopingTelecomsWatch away from the world's developing countries and emerging markets and focused my attention much closer to home.

Getting all self-indulgent, I described the possible effects of a rumoured T-Mobile UK-Vodafone UK merger on the area where I live. This is because I am personally acquainted with a few people who make the pleasantly short commute from here in St Albans to the T-Mobile campus in nearby Hatfield. Without any real numbers to hand, my sense, then, is that the Deutsche Telekom-owned cellco is a pretty significant employer in this part of the world. So, in a town where the unemployment figure has recently surged upwards, albeit from a very low base, a true merger of the two MNOs is unlikely to be warmly received. I think this is the first telecoms story that I've ever heard being discussed by parents waiting for their kids outside my son's nursery school.

Perhaps a more predictable setting for talk of telecoms M&A activity is Investor's Business Daily, whose writer Reinhardt Krause believes that "after slowing to a crawl in the first half of 2009, deal-making among phone companies is bouncing back, a shift that's playing out in developed and fast-growing emerging markets alike." Krause quotes a former colleague of mine, Thomas Wehmeier, an analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media, who says that "the talking that has been continuously ongoing is finally bubbling up to the surface in the form of actual bids and deals."

Krause cites a number of prospective deals:
  • Hutchison Whampoa may seek a merger for some or all of its money-losing operations in Europe, including 3 UK
  • The merger talks between Bharti Airtel of India and South Africa's MEA mobile group MTN
  • China Mobile being "on the prowl for more deals in Asia"
  • The much-discussed notion of Zain selling its African operations
When asked about the last of these, Wehmeier expressed surprise, but conceded that "Zain is seeing that operating in the African environment is not simply a way to print money, not matter how impressive the rate of subscription growth."

Tom Elliott, an analyst at Strategy Analytics, meanwhile, says that Zain may be tempted by the huge "one-time gain" it would realise by selling its African assets. As Krause's article states, in 2005, Zain acquired Celtel International's African operations for USD 3.4 billion and, if the current rumours are to be believed, is now looking to sell these (plus some other acquired later) for around USD 10 billion. The even larger sum of USD 12 billion has also been mentioned - and for a very interesting discussion on how that a 12 billion dollar valuation could be calculated, I'd heartily recommend a nice article written by Carlos Valdecantos of Spain-based management consulting and advisory firm mmC Group.

The Zain story is certainly the one to which most time has been dedicated here at DTW but, as discussed, the T-Mobile-Vodafone issue is the one whose impact I'd be most likely to feel in day-to-day life here in London's commuter belt.

The last time I looked at this, I briefly raised reasons why such a deal might not be plausible. These included the idea that UK authorities might be concerned about the market power of the merged operation in a consolidated mobile market and the question of why Deutsche Telkom would offload such a significant asset at the bottom of the market.

Paul Rasmussen of FierceWirelessEurope, writing late last week, has an interesting take on these two concerns. Rasmussen has listened to sources who believe that DT may prefer an asset swap to a sale, favouring the acquisition of a "comparable mobile operator in central or eastern Europe" from a group interested in T-Mobile UK.

Rasmussen cites "insiders" who claim that DT's CEO, René Obermann, is keen to avoid a sale of its UK subsidiary, not least because this would create doubts about the company's ambitions to remain a global player. "Early speculation has placed Vodafone Turkey as a possible candidate", writes Rasmussen.

Vodafone's Turkish operation must count among Big Red's least satisfactory acquisitions. No dent, for example, has been made on Turkcell's leading share of the market, currently estimated at 56.40% by WCIS, which is actually slightly higher than it was at the same time last year.

In March, another Informa Telecoms & Media analyst, Dario Talmesio, profiled the performance of Turkcell and, when analysing the competitive environment in the company's home country, asserted that the cellco's achievements were "facilitated by the exceptionally weak state of Vodafone Turkey."

Talmesio wrote that "Turkcell continued to hold a competitive advantage against its British-owned rival... with Vodafone Turkey scoring particularly low compared with Turkcell in key areas, such as quality of network, commercial distribution and customer satisfaction".

On a personal note, I've travelled to Turkey on business a several times and have had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of people working with just about every significant telecoms operator there, as well as many more in the mobile VAS space and with various consultancy firms. There does seem to be a very strong feeling in Istanbul that Turkcell's dominant position is unlikely to be threatened any time soon. I've even heard the suggestion that Turkish consumers can be quite resistant to foreign brands competing with ones perceived to originate from their home country. Even this seemingly quite intangible advantage might weigh heavily in Turkcell's favour. Personally, I have a fairly strong aversion to slugs and snails - almost a phobia - so, Turkcell's use of the latter in its branding does not float my boat. It doesn't seem to put off the majority of Turkish cell phone users, however.

Turkcell's snail: not to my taste, but works just fine for Turkey's mobile users

One can see, then, why Vodafone might look to retreat gracefully from Turkey. Why, though, would Deutsche Telekom be keen to have a crack at all these problems which Vodafone has seemingly failed to handle? Well, as Paul Rasmussen writes, "such a move would nicely complement Greece's OTE", in which DT has been growing its stake since last year and which has a SE Europe footprint, with mobile operations in a number of Balkan countries.

If we're going to ask what is attractive about Vodafone Turkey, we might equally ask why Vodafone would be interested in T-Mobile UK. Beyond the opportunity to jump instantly to a 40% share of the UK mobile market and into a clear leadership position by market share, does the Deutsche Telekom-owned cellco not come with considerable baggage?

As Paul Rasmussen notes, analysts are beginning to question the value of what T-Mobile UK has to offer. He writes that "while the company has around 16 million customers, it is largely made up of an unstable base of prepaid consumers who can switch carriers easily to chase the cheapest or best value plans" and notes that "T-Mobile also generates around 45 per cent of its cash flow from its MNVO deal with Virgin Mobile, a deal that could easily evaporate if a new owner ruffled Virgin's sensitive feathers."

Bearing all of this in mind, you'd have to ask why media speculation abounds about the UK's two other leading mobile operator, O2 and Orange being interested in T-Mobile UK.

One suggestion raised by Paul Rasmussen is that this stems from each operator seeking to "spoil the ambitions of the others", leading to "the winner overpaying while the losers then complain bitterly to the regulator in an effort to confuse and delay the acquisition." Rasmussen argues that "The 'losers' could then attack the unsettled T-Mobile subscriber base with attractive offers and packages. Why so cynical, Paul?

Scary stuff.

Let's keep watching.


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