As MasMovil becomes latest acquisition target, are more takeovers on the horizon?

KKR, Cinven and Providence have combined forces to buy Spanish telco MasMovil, but with depressed share prices and regulatory opinions shifting, it could be the first of many corporate transactions.

The merger and acquisition landscape has been somewhat quiet over the last few months, since the COVID-19 pandemic set in across the world, but we struggle to believe there are not cash rich investment funds considering weighty purchases. The most successful investment funds are only such because they can sniff an opportunity, and this is exactly what the MasMovil acquisition should be viewed as; corporate opportunism.

There are still approvals needed from Banca de Espana, the Spanish Telecoms ministry and Industry & Commerce ministry (foreign investment approval), as well as competition authorities in the EU, China, Turkey, Serbia and Israel. However, we suspect the process will run smoothly, especially considering MasMovil CEO Meinrad Spenger has already said he would support the transaction.

First reported by Reuters, the trio of bankers have now made an official public tender offer for $3.3 billion, a 22% premium on the opening share price this morning (June 1). Share price has surged 20%, as one would expect, though it has only just crept above the pre-lockdown levels.

This is what is very interesting about the telco market currently; share price for all major and minor telcos is severely depressed. For those who have money available, and the desire to push into the telecoms space, it is a very attractive opportunity currently.

Share price of selected European telcos during COVID-19 lockdown period
Telco Share Price, June 1 Share Price, Feb 3 Change
BT 120.51 163.34 -26%
Telecom Italia 0.48 0.34 -29%
Telefonica 6.11 4.48 -26%
Telenor 17.75 15.02 -15%
Orange 12.80 10.98 -14%
Vodafone 150.82 134.86 -11%

Share prices accurate at the time of writing – 10.30am, June 1

Some of the companies mentioned above would be too big to consider to be an acquisition target, Orange or Telefonica for example, though others could certainly fall into the right bracket. BT has a market capitalisation of £11.9 billion and is underperforming against UK rivals considerably, while the likes of KPN in the Netherlands could be another interesting target. Sitting third in the mobile market share rankings in the Netherlands, a cash injection and refreshed strategy could be a worthwhile gamble with the telco’s market capitalisation currently €9.42 billion.

Of course what is also worth noting is that the opportunity for acquiring business is not just limited to the bankers. Thanks to a ruling from the European Court of Justice, telcos might have renewed enthusiasm for market consolidation.

Last week, the General Court of the European Court of Justice annulled a decision made in 2016 to block a merger between O2 and Three in the UK on the grounds of competition. In annulling this decision, it challenges the long-standing belief that mergers which would take a market from four operators to three would be vetoed automatically.

This decision is very important for those who have been championing market consolidation. Some argue fewer telcos would results in more concentrated network investment, as well as scaled economics thanks to larger customer bases. The decision from the European courts opens the door for potential market consolidation.

There are of course markets where consolidation is not realistic, the Netherlands or Belgium for example where there are only three mobile network operators (MNOs) today, but there are others where this could be an interesting development. Spain is certainly one of them.

The Spanish market is one where there is plenty of competition. There are currently four major mobile operators, albeit MasMovil is an MVNO, while Euskaltel announced plans to challenge the market with a Virgin Media branded proposition. KKR, Cinven and Providence want to take control of MasMovil, but might Orange be tempted to muscle in on the action?

Telco subscriptions in Spain (2018-2021)
Telco 2018 2019 2020 2021
Orange 19,450,963 19,016,941 19,783,330 19,890,931
Telefonica 18,384,400 18,916,801 19,579,529 20,040,114
Vodafone 15,500,832 15,427,639 15,262,546 15,406,460
MasMovil 6,760,000 7,435,000 7,513,777 7,952,289

Source: Omdia World Information Series

MasMovil could look attractive to Orange for several reasons. Firstly, this is a telco which is heading in the right direction, subscriptions are growing year-on-year. Secondly, MasMovil has bought into the convergence business model which is being championed by the Orange Group. And finally, MasMovil is a MVNO customer of Orange’s Spanish wholesale business, making integration a bit simpler.

With the European courts turning a new page on market consolidation, possibly indicating authorities might be more accommodating of such transactions, this could be an idea which is being discussed in the Orange offices. It would make sense for Orange’s ambitions in the country, while MasMovil is open to some sort of transaction.

Some might also suggest Telefonica would be interested, but with the management team desperate to reduce the €44 billion debt burden and its credit ratings not exactly sparkling, this is unlikely. Vodafone might have considered such a move at another time, but it has larger problems to tackle without adding the complications of an acquisition, most notably in India and Italy.

Speculation aside, KKR, Cinven and Providence will attempt to buy the Spanish challenger telco. With a depressed share price and appreciation for the importance of the telecoms industry at its highest levels, we would not be surprised if this is only the first of several transactions from investment funds, though telco consolidation is also another story worth keeping a close eye on.

Phoenix expands tower empire to Ireland

Phoenix Tower International has announced an agreement to purchase 650 wireless towers from Irish telco eir, expanding its infrastructure footprint to a new European nation.

With 9,000 towers spread across 15 countries, Phoenix is quickly turning into one of the major players in the telecom infrastructure game. The acquisition of these assets, 100% of eir’s tower portfolio, will further drive Phoenix into the European markets, following hot on the heels of a deal with Bouygues Telecom to acquire 4,000 sites in France.

“Ireland represents an important economic hub for Europe and the world, and we are proud to support eir on their ongoing build-outs across the country,” said Tim Culver, Executive Chairman of Phoenix Tower International. “This transaction further expands PTI’s global footprint and we are excited to be a long-term partner of eir.”

Although operations are primarily focused in the Americas, Phoenix is becoming a much more familiar name for European telcos, several of which are keen to explore ways to access more cash.

While it is certainly a more attractive position to own assets rather than lease off an outside party, the deployment of 5G networks and upgrading broadband to full fibre are two very expensive projects. With the price of connectivity contracts only going down, spreadsheets only tolerating so much debt and investors only able to cough up so much, alternative means to raise funds are needed. The sale of physical infrastructure, the passive part of the network is proving to be a popular way forward.

Phoenix Tower International is one company which realises the potential of asset with (theoretically) consistent demand and zero expiry date, but it is not alone. Cellnex is hoovering up assets across Europe, InfraVia is finding cash to invest, as is Brookfield, a Canadian alternative asset management company. All of these companies recognise that owning the passive infrastructure in a world which is increasingly defined by mobile connectivity is an attractive bet.

But what does this mean for the industry? The influence of the telco on the telco industry is being diluted.

If the telcos no-longer want to own or invest in passive infrastructure, they will have less influence on construction plans, as let’s not forget, companies like Phoenix will have multiple customers to consider. There are of course build-to-suit programmes, but new sites will have to be attractive to multiple telco customers, not just one.

This is a compromise which has to be made. The telcos need money, they have assets to sell, but they will have to accept that they are also trading a slither of control of their own fate. We suspect there will be criticism of this trend in decades to come, when the future leaders of telcos are finding their voices drowned out by other segments of the industry, but it is a case of needs must.


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Jio carves out space for yet another US investor

It seems the US moneymen have a taste for Indian connectivity as General Atlantic becomes the fourth third-party firm to invest in the money-making machine which is Jio Platforms.

New York-based private equity firm General Atlantic has become the latest company to write a handsome $860 million cheque as table stakes for a 1.34% stake in Reliance Industries’ digital venture. Reliance Jio Platforms is looking like a very popular focal point for US investors attempting to tap into the rapidly developing Indian digital ecosystem.

In a matter of four weeks, Reliance Industries has managed to convince Facebook, Silver Lake, Vista Equity Partners and General Atlantic to part with almost $9 billion.

“I am thrilled to welcome General Atlantic, a marquee global investor, as a valued partner,” said Mukesh Ambani, Chairman of Reliance Industries. “I have known General Atlantic for several decades and greatly admired it for its belief in India’s growth potential.

“General Atlantic shares our vision of a Digital Society for India and strongly believes in the transformative power of digitization in enriching the lives of 1.3 billion Indians. We are excited to leverage General Atlantic’s proven global expertise and strategic insights across 40 years of technology investing for the benefit of Jio.”

While such warm words are usually offered irrelevant as to who the new investor is, General Atlantic is a useful company to have looped into the equation.

In the existing investment portfolio is NoBroker.com, an Indian consumer-to-consumer real estate transaction platform, Doctolib, digital healthcare platform in Europe to connect health professionals and patients, and Quizlet, an online learning platform. This is a company which has experience in the technology world, but also a number of bets which would be very complementary for the existing ventures in Reliance Jio Platforms.

“As long-term backers of global technology leaders and visionary entrepreneurs, we could not be more excited about investing in Jio,” said Bill Ford, CEO of General Atlantic.

“We share Mukesh’s conviction that digital connectivity has the potential to significantly accelerate the Indian economy and drive growth across the country. General Atlantic has a long track record working alongside founders to scale disruptive businesses, as Jio is doing at the forefront of the digital revolution in India.”

To call Jio disruptive is somewhat of an understatement, and the business model does seem to be drawing more attention from some very interesting organisations around the world. With the telco business unit as the tip of the spear, there is a clear opportunity to drive forward a secondary wave of digital businesses as connectivity get democratised through the country.

Doctolib, one of General Atlantic’s investments, is a very interesting platform for a country where traditional healthcare infrastructure is sporadic. The Jio digital ecosystem could act as a springboard for the app in the market, while Jio is then invested in another venture. Its collaboration and differentiation.

Reliance Jio, the telecoms business, is a powerful force, but the most interesting ideas are the ventures emerging today. The businesses which are enabled by the connectivity revolution which is sweeping the country. This is why the likes of General Atlantic are interested in invested in Reliance Jio Platforms now, not two years ago; the vision is much bigger than phone calls and streaming cat videos.


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Reliance Jio signs a third deal to add another $1.5bn to its bank account

Vista Equity Partners has become the third-largest investor in Reliance Platforms, purchasing a 2.32% equity stake in the disruptive business for $1.5 billion.

Following similar transactions with Facebook and Silver Lake, Vista will be become the third-largest investor in a business which is driving digital transformation and evolution in one of the worlds’ most attractive economies. Reliance Platforms, the business unit of Reliance Industries which incorporates all telecoms and digital ventures, is quickly becoming one of the worlds’ most interesting digital investments.

“We believe in the potential of the Digital Society that Jio is building for India,” said Robert Smith, CEO of Vista. “Mukesh’s vision as a global pioneer, alongside Jio’s world-class leadership team, have built a platform to scale and advance the data revolution it started.

“We are thrilled to join Jio Platforms to deliver exponential growth in connectivity across India, providing modern consumer, small business and enterprise software to fuel the future of one of the world’s fastest growing digital economies.”

As Smith highlights, Reliance Platforms is more than a telco. Jio, the telecoms business unit, might be the disruptive force in India being used to democratise connectivity, but this is only one branch of the business. Following behind the telecom revolution, Reliance Platforms is attempting to encourage digital transformation programmes in SMEs, healthcare and entertainment, through digital currencies, streaming platforms and big data.

This is perhaps what is exciting international investors; Jio is so much more than a telecoms giant. The team has the vision to appreciate that telecoms is simply the foundation on which to build bigger things atop. This is the difference between a telco which will be relevant into the future, and one which is at risk of falling into the commoditised connectivity business model.

For example, with low-cost connectivity tariffs, more Indian consumers and SMEs are encouraged into the digital economy. A telco will make money by enabling this, but it is a utility with limited potential. Reliance Platforms is using this as a vehicle to enable alternative digital payment platforms in a joint venture with Facebook, to create growth revenue streams not just sustainable ones. The profits will be realised through the second wave of disruption.

It is realising connectivity is only the first step, a nuance which is not evident through the communications of other telcos. This vision is perhaps what is most interesting to investors.

“Like our other partners, Vista also shares with us the same vision of continuing to grow and transform the Indian digital ecosystem for the benefit of all Indians,” said Mukesh Ambani, MD of Reliance Industries. “They believe in the transformative power of technology to be the key to an even better future for everyone.”

The business model which is slowly emerging out of Reliance Platforms is starting to look very exciting. Cut price and free voice tariffs might not make that much money, but they don’t have to if there is success in the secondary business models which are being enabled through the democratisation of connectivity.

This is the sort of business evolution which should be evident throughout the telecommunications industry but isn’t.

Why is Google so interested in Fitbit?

In early November, Google announced it was acquiring Fitbit for $2.1 billion, a transaction which has polarised opinion. But why is Google interested in a faltering wearables brand?

Acquisitions in the technology world are not unsurprising, especially when it comes to search engine giant Google. This is a company which is constantly pushing the boundaries of normality, testing ideas outside its core competencies and exploring for the next multi-billion-dollar business.

The question which remains in the minds of some is whether Fitbit could be the catalyst for profits, or if this is an unjustified expansion of Google’s ability to pry into the personal lives of users around the world.

$2.1 billion for a failing wearables business

When talking about wearables, it used to be impossible to avoid Fitbit. This appeared to be one of the very few companies who could turn a profit in a segment which flattered to deceive. Until recently that is.

Looking at the financials of Fitbit, the business was heading south very quickly.

Full-year financial results for Fitbit 2015-19 (USD ($), millions)
Year Total revenue Net Income (Loss)
2019 1,434 (320)
2018 1,512 (185)
2017 1,615 (277)
2016 2,169 (102)
2015 1,858 175

Source: Fitbit Investor Relations

In 2015, Fitbit was a rapidly growing wearables brand turning a tidy profit. What made this even more impressive is the failures of almost everyone else to crack the market; wearables was a segment which no-one else seemed to be able to make work, not even Apple.

The trick with Fitbit was simplicity. It didn’t try to take on traditional timepieces with a clunky digital alternative which still had to be tethered to a smartphone, it produced a simple fitness device. It identified a need and fulfilled a purpose, without trying to be too clever.

The issue which it has faced in recent years is two-fold. Firstly, wearables become more mainstream and demanded more functionality. And secondly, mainstream brands were allocating big marketing budgets.

Fitbit attempted to evolve its offering, creating more devices which were more in-line with the smartwatch image of today, but it struggled to compete with the likes of Apple and Samsung when it came to functionality, design, marketing and acquiring new customers who had not previously been interested in wearables. It failed to evolve, adapt and expand.

That said, the barebones of a successful business are still there.

The resurgence of Fitbit as a competitive force

Fitbit is an interesting acquisition for Google. It has a solid and reputable fitness brand, a loyal customer base as well as existing products and IP. The fundamentals of a good business are in place, the reason Fitbit failed is it was not able to advance its business model to the next level of development.

Aside from good products, consumers nowadays are insisting on experiences and an ecosystem of supporting applications. One explanation as to why Fitbit is a failing business is that it was unable to develop the supporting applications, experiences and services to bundle behind the hardware.

This is where Google can help.

With the Fitbit team concentrating on developing new products, the software and services element can be delegated to the Google engineers. With an army of software experts and existing products, Fitbit could certainly emerge as a fighting force on the wearable scene once again.

Aside from the Android operating system which has Google has created for the wearable ecosystem, Wear OS, there are numerous other services which could be more closely linked to the Fitbit products such as Google Maps and YouTube Music. The products could also benefit from the work Google is doing into new areas such as the voice user interface and gesture control.

Bringing together the Fitbit hardware experience, IP and brand, with Google’s OS expertise and software engineering smarts is a very attractive mix.

Why would Google care about the wearable segment?

Firstly, Google is interested in any idea which can make money, and with the right care and attention, as well as patience, you can make money out of just about anything.

Secondly, the wearable ecosystem allows Google to operate in an area where it currently doesn’t.

And finally, wearable products allow it to buildout other investments in areas such as healthcare and smart cities.

Global smartphone market share – 2019
Brand Market share
Apple 31.7%
Xiaomi 12.4%
Samsung 9.2%
Huawei 8.3%
Fitbit 4.7%

Source: Statista

Just like the smart speaker products Google launched in recent years, the greater opportunity is not to profit from product sales, but to build a services ecosystem behind the hardware. Fitbit products with Wear OS allow Google to interact with customers in a new setting, in a new way, while collecting new data.

This data can of course be used to supplement existing advertising models, hyper-targeted messaging is where the money is after all, but it can also offer Google the opportunity to build new services. With a portfolio of fitness related products, Google can collect new data to create new applications as well as buildout the development of existing ideas.

For example, Verily is a research organization devoted to the study of life sciences. Verily works with academia, hospitals and health systems and life sciences companies to improve healthcare. The work is of course technology focused, making best use of data to augment the healthcare industry, and the addition of a portfolio of health and fitness wearable products would improve this proposition.

Another example is Sidewalk Labs, an ‘urban innovation’ investment from Google. The concept of smart cities is quickly gathering steam, and should the right investments be made, software companies could make billions. Wearable devices will be an important element of the smart cities for identification and authentication with public services, payments and interaction with other applications which could emerge.

These are two ideas which already exist in the Alphabet family, but Google does not currently have a venture into fitness and lifestyle. Fitbit it an entry point.

Owning the OS is critical to owning the ecosystem

Google is one of the most successful companies in the world because it manages to position its products and brands in front of people. And perhaps the most important acquisition it made in its history was Android.

The operating system, founded in 2003 by Andy Rubin, ensured Google powered the majority of smartphones across the world. It is free for smartphone manufacturers to use, but this comes with conditions; certain applications have to be installed as default. Aside from these products being very good, accessibility is one of the reasons they are so popular.

Wear OS, the operating system for wearable devices, offers Google the same opportunity. If users are tied into the Wear OS ecosystem, Google can build services and monetize the audience.

However, success for Wear OS has been wayward to date.

Apple devices use WatchOS, Xiaomi have their own as well, Garmin has developed one internally, Tizen is a Linux-based primarily by Samsung, while Fitbit also had their own. No-one was really that interested in Google’s OS when they have proprietary software, as this would mean handing data and the controlling stake in the software ecosystem to Google.

Purchasing Fitbit offers Google the opportunity to get Wear OS into the wild, collecting data to improve its capabilities. Without the Fitbit acquisition, Wear OS would most likely have dwindled and died, but if the Fitbit brand can be reinvigorated, there is every chance Google could be very influential in this segment. Especially as Fitbit already have a health-orientated brand perception.

Data, data, data…

The Google business is built on data. The algorithm powering search engines only works well because it is constantly trained to improve accuracy of results. Google advertising is only successful because it is hyper-targeted. The Maps products constantly need to be fed data to ensure route-planning is most efficient, local businesses are listed and preferences are honed to the user.

Fitbit offers some extraordinary data, which would be very useful for companies like Google.

To make best use of fitness-based products and applications, additional information on the user is often needed. Weight, height, fitness and lifestyle objectives, eating habits are some examples which can be plugged into the application. These devices also track user location, how and when they exercise, heart rate, and sleep patterns. Analysing this information is very useful for fitness-orientated users, but it is also incredibly valuable to advertisers.

It is always worth pointing out that the more people making use of Wear OS, the more data Google is collecting to fuel the advertising machine. Thanks to Deepmind, Google’s AI powerhouse, all of Google’s service make use of user insight to improve the accuracy and profitability.

This is where some of the objections to the Fitbit acquisition have been directed.

How much is too much insight?

There are many in society who are uncomfortable with the amount of information the internet giants, not Google alone, have already and how much additional access they are gaining through acquisitions. There are some who like the idea of Google purchasing Fitbit, but there are also others who question whether this is handing too much power and influence to the search giant.

Some might question how much of a window Google should be given into the personal lives of people around the world.

“The most critical issue is Google’s acquisition of Fitbit’s trove of health and biometric data,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an opponent of the acquisition, said. “Obtaining that data will help Google both improve its advertising business and significantly expand its data empire.

“Google’s acquisition of Fitbit will also deprive users of one simple, meaningful choice they could have made: to track their health and fitness without putting that data into Google’s ecosystem.

“And where users have already made this choice—by buying and using Fitbit devices prior to the acquisition—an acquisition destroys those user choices, retrospectively opting them into Google data collection despite their revealed preference to use a Google competitor.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has two objections to Google’s acquisition of Fitbit. Firstly, Google is getting too much personal information. A single, private organisation should not have such power. And secondly, such an acquisition would restrict competition in an already restrictive segment.

On the competition side of things, there is a valid point.

Not only is the smartwatch and wearable segment pretty small already, competition is the digital advertising space is also limited. Should Google expand further it would become more powerful in the advertising game, potentially killing off rivals.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is not alone with its objections to the deal, and the concerns are not going unheard.

In the US, the Department of Justice is considering the impact of the acquisition in terms of data collection and privacy as well as market competition. Down in Australia, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has launched a similar investigation which is due to conclude on May 21.

The big question of whether Google should be allowed to acquire Fitbit

By acquiring Fitbit, Google gives itself a leapfrog in the wearable OS segment, it builds out investments in healthcare and smart cities, creates additional revenue streams, allows it to drive forward another ecosystem in its own vision and adds more valuable data into the advertising machine.

For Google, this is an incredibly intelligent acquisition, $2.1 billion well spent.

However, if it is to be successful it has to develop this business intelligently. The Wear OS team should focus on the development of the operating system and supporting ecosystem, while the Fitbit engineers should be empowered to create excellent devices, whether they are simplistic fitness trackers or complex smartwatches.

Enough money has to be thrown at the development teams, but Google has to let Fitbit be Fitbit; it is a successful brand and must be allowed to continue its own path. Let Google engineers concentrate on software, and Fitbit engineers concentrate on hardware.

But the question is not whether Google is smart in acquiring Fitbit, more whether it should be allowed to. The acquisition would enable Google access to a treasure trove of very personal information, as well as posing a potential risk to competition. The internet giants have already demonstrated a sluggish attitude to data privacy, and this transaction offers access to some very personal information.

Authorities will have to assess whether Fitbit would have survived on its own, which looking at the financials is unlikely, and whether Google should be allowed to expand its influence and power through the acquisition of more data.

Nokia share price surges on takeover rumours

Nokia share price has jumped more than 10% following rumours the equipment vendor could be the target of a hostile takeover.

The rumours themselves can be traced back to TMT Finance, though such reports should always be taken with a pinch of salt. Nokia has allegedly recruited investment banking firm Citi to counter a transaction, but it refusing to comment on market rumours.

Although the report does not specify a source, making it more suspicious, the market has reacted in such a manner to indicate investors at least partially believe the rumours. Considering the losses racked up in the financial markets over the last few months, it would not be surprising if there were a few opportunists hiding in the darker corners devising such plans.

Company Share price Share price since February 18, 2020 Market capitalisation
Nokia €3.24 -18.2% 18.34 billion
Twitter $25.66 -30.24% 20.79 billion
Telecom Italia €0.36 -30.38% 7.51 billion
BT £1.23 -20.53% 12.24 billion
Uber $27.03 -32.73% 46.69 billion

Share price accurate at time of writing; 12.30pm, April 17, 2020

Thanks to the coronavirus outbreak, the global financial markets are not in the healthiest of positions. The Dow Jones is still down 19.5% from mid-February, with the NASDAQ down 13%, while the FTSE 100 has slipped 21.7% and the Euronext 100 has dropped 24.1%. For the majority, this is bad news, but those who are currently cash rich it presents a significant opportunity.

Certain companies will have drawn the attention of certain corners of the finance industry, and it is likely some of these are sniffing around. Vulture fund Elliott Management, for example, ramped up its ownership of Twitter in the months leading up to the coronavirus outbreak, pointing towards an under-performing share price. Such moves were made before the significant drops tied to COVID-19.

Looking at the table above, there are several prominent companies which might be targeted for hostile takeover, or at least attract the attention of activist investors.

Nokia is a company which may well be in the sights of numerous companies due to recent performance. This is a critically important company for the health of the telecommunications industry, so it is highly likely to have a sustained role, but it has not been able to keep pace with the likes of Ericsson and Huawei. Trends have depressed share price, making it a potentially attractive target.

If there is any truth to the rumours concerning Nokia, this would be a transaction being closely monitored by the relevant authorities.

Depending on who would be the purchaser of the network infrastructure vendor, there could well be a few regulatory authorities ready to veto. The US, for instance, should be very interested considering the role Nokia plays in the deployment of communications infrastructure in the country.

Having secured 5G commercial contracts with all four of the major telcos in the US, Nokia is set to play a very prominent role in the deployment of next-generation infrastructure, even more so when you take into account the firm is also one of the more successful vendors in the optical segment also. Having already ruled out any Chinese vendors, the options for US telcos are very limited, with Nokia being one.

Should the rumours be traced back to any companies or territories associated with China, it would be halted before any momentum is allowed to gather.

CityFibre completes £200mn FibreNation acquisition

With TalkTalk shareholders approving the sale of FibreNation to CityFibre for £200 million, the wholesale infrastructure challenger has increased its rollout target to 8 million premises.

With an existing FibreNation network in York, construction projects underway in Harrogate and Dewsbury, as well as plans slated for Bolton, CityFibre has now set its sights on 62 towns and cities outside of London for fibre. The rollout of services to 8 million premises will eventually span to 100 towns and cities, as CityFibre continues its mission to be a scaled and nationwide competitor to Openreach in the wholesale segment.

“In the face of the rapid spread of the Coronavirus and its unprecedented impact on the UK’s society and economy, we believe that the need for world-class digital infrastructure has never been greater,” said CityFibre CEO Greg Mesch.

“Completing our acquisition of FibreNation marks an acceleration in our ability to deploy the critical future-proof digital infrastructure our country needs. By significantly expanding our rollout ambition to up to 8 million premises, CityFibre is helping to answer the call for a full fibre Britain.”

What this means for TalkTalk remains to be seen, though it appears its mission to challenge the ISP market by both owning the infrastructure and the relationship with the customer is drawing to a close. Sceptics might suggest this transaction is a sign of a struggling business, as a result of the lower-cost fibre services and the vast expense of deploying full-fibre networks, weighing heavily on the spreadsheets.

“The sale of FibreNation to CityFibre, in combination with a competitive wholesale agreement, enables us to continue our strategy to accelerate TalkTalk’s fibre growth for our residential and business customers, thereby delivering a superior customer experience at an affordable price,” said TalkTalk CEO Tristia Harrison.

This is of course another step forward for CityFibre. This is a company which is cash rich, thanks to it being acquired by a Goldman Sachs owned fund, allowing for aggressive construction of full-fibre networks, though acquisition is in the heritage of this business. Let’s not forget, CityFibre exists thanks to the acquisition and integration of distressed fibre businesses (H2O Networks, Fibrecity Holdings and Opencity Media, for example) in 2011.

On the construction front, CityFibre has been given the greenlight to continue its ambitious rollout from the UK Government. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has paid particular attention to the progress being made in the broadband segment, and recently requested deployment should continue during the outbreak as it will allow both society and the economy to function and to enable rapid economic recovery when the crisis is over.

FTC starts turning the screw on Big Tech

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued Special Orders to five of the technology industry’s biggest hitters as it takes a more forensic look at acquisition regulation.

Under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act, certain acquisitions or mergers are required to be greenlit by the regulatory authorities in the US before completion. This is supposed to be a measure to ensure an appropriate marketplace is maintained, though there are certain exceptions to the rule. It appears the FTC is making moves to combat the free-wheeling acquisition activities of Big Tech.

Under the Special Orders, Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft now have to disclose all acquisitions which took place over the last decade. It appears the FTC believes the current rules on acquisition need to be reconsidered.

“Digital technology companies are a big part of the economy and our daily lives,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons. “This initiative will enable the Commission to take a closer look at acquisitions in this important sector, and also to evaluate whether the federal agencies are getting adequate notice of transactions that might harm competition. This will help us continue to keep tech markets open and competitive, for the benefit of consumers.”

While authorities have already questioned whether some acquisitions are in the best interest of a sustainable industry, in fairness, Big Tech has done nothing wrong. Where relevant, the authorities have been notified regarding acquisitions, and they have generally been approved. If the FTC and its cousins in other regulatory authorities believe the current status quo is unappealing, they only have themselves to blame.

In general, an acquisition will always have to be reported if the following three criteria are met:

  1. The transaction would have an impact on US commerce
  2. One of the parties has annual sales or total assets of $151.7 million, and the other party has sales or assets of $15.2 million or more
  3. The value of the securities or assets of the other party held by the acquirer after the transaction is $68.2 million or more

All three of these criteria have to be met before the potential acquisition has to be approved by the regulators.

Interestingly enough, the Android acquisition by Google is rumoured to be for roughly $50 million, therefore the third criteria was not met, and the team did not need to gain regulatory approval for the deal. This is perhaps what the FTC is attempting to avoid in the future, as while we suspect there was no-one in the office at the time with enough foresight to understand the implications, the regulator might suggest it would not have approved the deal in hindsight.

One of the issues being faced currently, and this is true around the world not just in the US, is that authorities feel they have lost control of the technology industry. Companies like Google and Facebook arguably wield more influence than politicians and regulatory authorities, a position few will be comfortable with outside of Silicon Valley.

Aside from this investigation, the FTC is also exploring Amazon in an antitrust probe, while Google and Facebook are facing their own scrutiny on the grounds of competition. There have also been calls to break-up the power of the technology companies, while European nations are looking into ways to force these companies to pay fair and reasonable tax. Across the world, authorities are looking for ways to hold Big Tech more accountable and to dilute influence.

Interestingly enough, we don’t actually know what the outcome of the latest FTC foray will be. It will of course have one eye on updating acquisition rules, though as Section 6(b) of the FTC Act allows the regulator to conduct investigations that do not have a specific law enforcement purpose; it’s a blank cheque and the potential outcome could head down numerous routes.

Cellnex finds another €800m to expand tower empire into Portugal

Cellnex has expanded its European footprint once again through the acquisition of Omtel, taking the infrastructure giants into the Portuguese market.

It is perhaps becoming difficult to fully convey the aggressive nature of Cellnex’s expansion over the last 12-18 months. This €800 million transaction is another to add to the increasing list of moves made by the firm to quickly expand the geographical relevance of the business. Altice Portugal and Belmont Infra Holding are the beneficiaries this time.

“With Omtel, we are not only integrating one of the leading independent telecommunications infrastructure operators in Portugal,” said Cellnex CEO Tobias Martínez.

“We are also committing to consistent growth in Europe, incorporating an eighth market – which naturally extends the current geographical coverage of the seven countries in which we already operate, and in this case especially due to the proximity and operational synergies that may arise with the Group in Spain.

“We are also incorporating a new client, Meo, which is the market leader and joins a rich and diversified mix of clients in Europe, covering the leading operators in the markets in which we operate.”

As part of the deal, Cellnex will acquire 3,000 mobile cell sites, roughly 25% of the total across Portugal, while there are plans through the build-to-suit (BTS) programme to deploy additional 350 by 2027. The current expansion plans have been tabled at a cost of €140 million.

While Cellnex is proving to be a very ambitious firm right now, this might be down to opportunism more than anything else. European telcos do not have the same scale as those in North America or Asia and have been financially strained over the course of the last decade. Most are now searching for funds to fuel 5G and fibre deployment plans, and divestment in passive infrastructure is proving to be a popular strategy.

The telcos financial situation has been well-publicised and Cellnex is one of a few different players seemingly hunting bargain deals for infrastructure assets across the continent.

Aside from the Omtel investment, Cellnex has also bought 1,500 sites from Orange Spain, Arqiva’s Telecoms division for £2 billion, Irish tower company Cignal, 70% of the operating company which manages Iliad’s 7,900 sites and 2,800 sites from Swiss telco Salt. Alongside this spree of acquisitions, Cellnex also obtained marketing and operating rights for 220 BT high towers distributed throughout the UK for 20 years and has signed numerous co-operation deals across the continent.

All of these deals were announced post-May 2019. It has been a very busy six months.

Cellnex has certainly noted telcos are in a precarious position and is throwing some serious cash to obtain assets. It might be expensive in the short-term, but it has guaranteed customers for as long as anyone can stare into the future; Cellnex and its 60,000 sites is a heavy-weight, profit making machine.

Brookfield finds more cash for $2.6bn Cincinnati Bell purchase

Brookfield Infrastructure has continued its Christmas spending spree with the acquisition of Cincinnati Bell for $2.6 Billion.

Shareholders will welcome a 36% premium on share price, with Brookfield Infrastructure paying $10.50 in cash at closing of the transaction. The proposal has already been unanimously approved by Cincinnati Bell’s Board of Directors and now moves through to the regulatory approval process.

“The transaction strengthens our financial position, enabling accelerated investment in our strategic products that is not presently available to Cincinnati Bell as a standalone company,” said Leigh Fox, CEO of Cincinnati Bell. “This will allow us to drive growth and maximize value over the long term to the benefit of all our stakeholders.”

“This investment represents an opportunity for Brookfield Infrastructure to acquire a great franchise and leading fiber network operator in North America,” said Sam Pollock, CEO of Brookfield Infrastructure. “We are excited to leverage our operating expertise to work with the company’s management team as it completes its industry-leading fiber optic rollout plan. Cincinnati Bell is a great addition to our data infrastructure portfolio, and we expect it will contribute strong utility-like cash flows with predictable growth.”

For Brookfield Infrastructure, this closes a very busy end to 2019, with the team investing considerable funds in the telecom infrastructure business. Aside from this transaction, the team has confirmed the acquisition of Reliance Industries’ mobile infrastructure business unit in India and also a 93% stake in Wireless Infrastructure Group (WIG), an operator-neutral infrastructure provider in the UK.

Looking at Cincinnati Bell, the attractive fibre assets in Hawaii, Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana will now be offered a super-charge with additional investments from the seemingly cash-rich Canadians. The telco currently has a footprint of over 1.3 million homes, delivering broadband, video and voice services to consumer and enterprise customers. 17,000 miles of dense metro and last-mile cables have been ‘future-proofed’, and with the customer appetite for fibre and 5G backhaul getting more evident, it makes sense the money-men are starting to get more interested in communications infrastructure.

The industry does seem to be demonstrating a useful convergence trend in recent months. Investment funds are becoming more interested in infrastructure investments, while the telcos are getting more desperate for additional funds to fuel deployment strategies. It might not be a surprise to see more of these deals over the early months of 2020.