Elliot set to challenge AT&T leadership over media strategy – report

The apparent anointing of John Stankey as the next AT&T CEO is reportedly what prompted Elliott to announce its activist intentions.

Right now this insight comes courtesy of the WSJ alone, which has chatted to some people who think they know what they’re talking about. The report says AT&T Randall Stephenson plans to call it a day soon and has been grooming his mate John Stankey to take over. Stankey was recently promoted the specially-created role of COO, which would be easy to view as a stepping stone to CEO, especially since most of the company now seems to report directly to the COO.

Shortly after activist investor firm Elliott Management announced it had acquired a significant shareholding in AT&T and intended to use that position to pressure the AT&T management into making changes that it reckons will significantly boost the share price. That is the ultimate aim of activist investors like Elliott, which are sometimes referred to as vulture funds.

The WSJ piece mainly seeks to flesh out Elliot’s objectives. It claims the closed, cronyish succession plan is what provoked Elliott into breaking cover and going public with its concerns. The continued promotion of Stankey is considered to be symptomatic of a botched approach to AT&T’s strategy of diversifying towards media, as he has been put in charge of it all, rather than leaving it to the media experts already in place at the acquired companies.

Elliott has rich form in messing with the grand plans or corporate execs, having recently succeeded in preventing Vivendi from controlling Italian operator group TIM while only owning a quarter of it. AT&T is an order of magnitude larger but the same principles apply. If Elliott can convince other AT&T shareholders that its plans for the company will give them a better return than those of Stephenson and Stankey then it could initiate a proxy battle for control of the company.

The handling of the DirecTV acquisition seems to be especially derided by Elliott, which seems to think AT&T should cut its losses and flog it. But its complaints don’t seem to stop there, with Stankey’s control of WarnerMedia apparently a source of grievance too. A lot rests on AT&T’s imminent SVOD service, HBO Max, which will have to succeed in a very competitive market to reassure its investors.

Telenor and Axiata pull the plug on mega-merger

Operator groups Telenor and Axiata had intended to merge their Asian operations but have now decided it’s just too much hassle.

The proposed merger was announced back in May. “We are on the verge of making a new history,” said Axiata Group CEO Tan Sri Jamaludin Ibrahim, at the time. “This proposed mega merger of equals would create a Global Champion, headquartered right here in Malaysia.”

But by the time we got to Axiata’s quarterlies last week, there was talk that the move was set to fall through. Ibrahim wasted little time in scotching those rumours, insisting that the talks were still on track, but that they were always bound to take a while due to the complexity of the deal.

Well now it looks like that priced-in complexity is the reason for the whole deal collapsing, respite recent reassurances to the contrary. “Over the last four months, both parties have been working on due diligence and finalising transaction agreements to be completed within the third quarter of 2019,” said the short announcement. “Due to some complexities involved in the Proposed Transaction, the parties have mutually agreed to end the discussions.”

This is pretty embarrassing for both companies. Of course due diligence needs to be followed but what could have taken them four months to uncover? No more details have been revealed but you have to assume that either some corporate skeletons in the closet were uncovered or one of the parties involved has gone off the whole idea for some reason.

BT streamlining continues with reported £100m Dutch infrastructure sale

UK telco group BT is reportedly flogging £100 million of infrastructure assets in The Netherlands as its new CEO strives to make it a leaner operation.

BT doesn’t seem to have said anything official yet, but the Sunday Times got the scoop regardless. Apparently this is part of an attempt to streamline the struggling Global Services business, as BT currently uses its own infrastructure, such as towers and cables, to connect its Dutch business customers.

There’s not much more to the report other than a claim that, while BT is also looking to streamline its Global Services operations in other regions, including Ireland, Spain and Latin America, it doesn’t plan to completely abandon specific countries.

The report also refers to a previous Sunday Times scoop that BT is also flogging a legal software service called Tikit. It’s reasonable to ask what the hell BT was doing in the legal software business in the first place and if this is indicative of the kind of wild tangents the Global Services business has gone off on in the past, we can expect many more such disposals.

This news comes just days after it was revealed that BT was forced to hand over a bunch of cash to Ofcom due to its historical accounting incompetence. In addition BT announced last week that it was delisting from the New York stock exchange and earlier in the month decided to flog BT Fleet Solutions. Sadly for CEO Philip Jansen, none of this tweaking seems to have won over investors, with BT’s share price down by over 30% since he took over at the start of the year.

Vivendi hopes to raise €3 billion by flogging 10% of Universal Music to Tencent

French media giant Vivendi seems to be a bit short of cash, so it’s thinking of selling 10% of Universal Music to Tencent for three billion euros.

Vivendi primarily concerns itself with the TV and music businesses, having flogger SFR to Altice a few years ago, but that hasn’t stopped it trying to run Telecom Italia despite being a minority shareholder. It has historically been frantically active in terms of M&A and rarely seems to hold on to an acquisition before looking to sell it on

Tencent is a Chinese internet giant that owns IM service WeChat, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter – Weibo, loads of other digital stuff such as gaming and ecommerce, and most of China’s music services. It’s one of the world’s biggest technology companies and is no less fond of M&A than Vivendi.

“Vivendi and Tencent are also concurrently considering areas of strategic commercial cooperation,” said the announcement. “In this context, Vivendi is keen to explore enhanced cooperation which could help UMG [Universal Music Group] capture growth opportunities offered by the digitalization and the opening of new markets.

“Together with Tencent, Vivendi hopes to improve the promotion of UMG’s artists, with whom UMG has created the greatest catalogue of recordings and songs ever, as well as identify and promote new talents in new markets. Vivendi hopes that this new strategic partnership could create value for both Tencent and UMG.”

While improved access to the Chinese market is definitely a positive for UMG, that bit of narrative also feels like an attempt to make this move seem more about business strategy and less about Vivendi needing to raise some cash. Three billion euros would buy you around 30% of Telecom Italia at today’s prices, which would give Vivendi a majority stake. Just saying.

Accenture gets better at telecoms with acquisition of Northstream

Business consulting giant Accenture has decided this is a good time to raise its telecoms game and is doing so by snapping up specialist firm Northstream.

Founded by former Ericsson exec Bengt Nordström (whose surname translates to Northstream in English – see what he did there?) in 1998, Northstream focuses on the business side of telecoms. Its strengths include industry research, technology assessment and business transformation programmes. Nordström himself regularly appears in the telecoms media and occasionally on its defining podcast.

“With our common cultures of collaboration and client-centricity, Northstream and Accenture are a great fit,” said Nordström. “We’re excited to be able to bring the combined deep industry experience and scale of our two organizations to help clients generate new value and succeed in today’s increasingly competitive market.”

“With Northstream now part of Accenture, we’re in an even stronger position to provide our communications clients with the innovation led services they need to address the challenges they’re facing — including digital-driven disruption, changing customer expectations, and competition from new digital natives,” said Mattias Lewrén, Nordic CMT lead and Sweden Country Managing Director at Accenture.

Accenture seems especially excited with the boost Northstream will give its Nordic efforts. But that still didn’t earn Lewrén a place in the official acquisition photo shoot above, with Nordström on the right joined by co-MDs of Accenture’s Communications, Media & Technology group Anders Helmrich and Anna Weissmann instead.

We spoke to Nordström to get a bit more colour on the move. He confirmed that Northstream will remain a separate enitity within the Nordic comms team and that he himself will hang around for at least another three years. He noted that many of the best telecoms business opportunities lie in the overlap with other vertical industries and that Accenture, with its breadth of industry expertise, is in a great position to make the most of those. He also said he’s very happy to have secured the future for his company. Congratulations Bengt, the beers are on you next time you’re in London.

IBM and Red Hat seal the deal

The $34 billion acquisition of opensource enterprise software vendor Red Hat by venerable tech giant IBM has finally been completed.

The mega M&A was first announced last October and, given the size of it, seems to have gone through relatively quickly. Now begins the significant undertaking of integrating two such massive organisations that may well have quite distinct cultures.

IBM was founded in 1911 and has undergone several transformations to become the enterprise software and services company it is today. Red Hat only came into existence in 1993 and has always focused on the decidedly un-corporate open-source software community. IBM will be hoping some of its youthful vigour and flexibility will rub off, but that remains to be seen.

The official line is that the acquisition makes IBM one of the leading hybrid cloud providers as well as augmenting its software offering. There’s much talk Red Hat’s independence being preserved but, of course, it will now be taking orders from IBM.

“Businesses are starting the next chapter of their digital reinventions, modernizing infrastructure and moving mission-critical workloads across private clouds and multiple clouds from multiple vendors,” said Ginni Rometty, IBM chairman, president and CEO. “They need open, flexible technology to manage these hybrid multicloud environments. And they need partners they can trust to manage and secure these systems.”

“When we talk to customers, their challenges are clear: They need to move faster and differentiate through technology,” said Jim Whitehurst, president and CEO of Red Hat (what’s the difference?). “They want to build more collaborative cultures, and they need solutions that give them the flexibility to build and deploy any app or workload, anywhere.

“We think open source has become the de facto standard in technology because it enables these solutions. Joining forces with IBM gives Red Hat the opportunity to bring more open source innovation to an even broader range of organizations and will enable us to scale to meet the need for hybrid cloud solutions that deliver true choice and agility.”

That’s it really. There’s lots aspirational talk and general banging on in the press release, but you get the gist of it. Whitehurst will join the senior management team and report into Rometty, who seems to possess every senior management position worth having. IBM has been steadily increasing cloud as a proportion of total revenues and the pressure is now on to take that growth to the next level.

Dish said to be close to buying Boost from Sprint

The disposal of assets required to sugar the pill of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger looks likely to be completed by US cableco Dish.

The latest goss comes from Bloomberg, which has been chatting to people who reckon they know what they’re talking about. These mysterious oracles say Dish is ready to drop $6 billion on prepaid operator brand Boost as well as a bunch of other unspecified stuff.

Since Boost has been valued at around $3 billion that’s quite a lot of unaccounted for expenditure. Since US regulators would ideally like a new national operator to be created before it will allow two of them to marge, this probably means some spectrum and whatever else Dish needs to become a viable MNO.

Apparently the WSJ had written a similar story last week so these telecoms Deep Throats are being nice and busy. Presumably they’re affiliated to the interested parties in some way and are floating trial balloons to see gauge broader sentiment on such a deal. None of the share prices of the companies concerned did much in response to the revelations.

Light Reading has reported on commentary from an Analyst who doesn’t think this is a great idea. He notes that it looks like a lose/lose since it takes spectrum away from TMUS/Sprint and cash away from Dish, in both cases depriving them of commodities they’re already short of. But big M&A usually ends up being about the egos of the big shots involved and if all those concerned fancy the idea they’ll probably go ahead regardless.

Apple said to be sniffing around Intel’s modem business

Having recently ditched Intel’s modem business like a bad habit, gadget giant Apple is reportedly now thinking of buying it.

The rumour comes courtesy of The Information, which says it got the scoop from no less than four unnamed people who we’re told have been briefed on the discussions between Apple and Intel. Specifically Apple is said to be interested in Intel’s German modem operations, which is where much of the 5G R7D will have taken place.

Intel found itself as an unwitting pawn in Apple’s legal battle of will with mobile chip giant Qualcomm. Apple wasn’t happy with what Qualcomm was charging for its modems and took to the courts to do something about it. This was always just a form of negotiation, a crucial part of which was Apple’s insistence that it could just walk away from Qualcomm if it didn’t lower its prices.

The problem with this is that there are very few 5G modem players in town and even fewer that aren’t affiliated to a smartphone competitor of Apple’s. One of those was supposed to Intel, which found itself constantly defending its ability to deliver a competitive 5G modem in the face of understandable scepticism from the industry and, increasingly, from Apple itself.

Eventually the Emperor was revealed to be naked and Apple was forced to settle with Qualcomm once it became clear Intel wasn’t able to deliver. Intel wasted little time in throwing in the towel entirely on 5G modems once their only customer had ditched them and promptly retreated into the shadows, vaguely muttering about IoT.

But that doesn’t mean its efforts to deliver a 5G modem were entirely wasted. Through acquisition and organic R&D Intel must have picked up a thing or two about delivering 5G radio over the years. While Apple is forced in the mid term to rely on the loathed Qualcomm, it ultimately aspires to modem self-reliance. Since Intel’s 5G unit is presumably available at a knock-down price following its public humiliation it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Apple snap it up, if only for a laugh.

Sprint/T-Mobile US merger set for a $3 billion boost

It looks like Sprint could trouser up to three billion bucks when it flogs its prepaid subsidiary Boost in a bid to placate antitrust authorities.

The Sprint/T-Mobile US merger saga has been going on for so long that people are starting to not care, but a recent set of negotiated concessions were enough to convince the head of the FCC to wave the deal though. The DoJ isn’t so sure, but they might as well go ahead with the placatory measures in the hope that it comes around eventually.

One of the biggest concessions will be selling Boost, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sprint that specialises in prepaid contracts. TMUS is pretty hot on prepaid, so regulators concluded their combined efforts would take too much choice out of the prepaid market. Since this public commitment doesn’t put Sprint in the strongest negotiating position, the challenge is to get a decent price for Boost.

According to a Reuters report a company called Q Link Wireless is prepared to shell out somewhere between $1.8 billion to $3 billion for Boost. This is coming from the Q Link CEO, apparently, so we must assume it’s legit, but it also seems like a pretty broad range. What would make him pay almost double his lower figure? Some kind of bidding war presumably, so maybe he’s trying to scare off anyone not prepared to go to three bil.

The official line is that it depends on what he sees once he looks under the hood, with Sprint not yet having publicly disclosed key metrics such as churn, popular tariffs, etc. But FreedomPop is reportedly talking to private equity about getting involved and they would apparently be prepared to go up to four bil, so this has the feel of an auction carried out via the media.