Vodafone CEO hints at UK M&A and this time the regulators might agree

Vodafone chief executive Nick Read has hinted at further mergers and acquisitions in the UK telecoms market, and it's pretty clear that his company is a likely key player in any activity.

Mary Lennighan

November 15, 2021

4 Min Read
Deal Handshake

Vodafone chief executive Nick Read has hinted at further mergers and acquisitions in the UK telecoms market, and it’s pretty clear that his company is a likely key player in any activity.

In an interview in the Sunday Times this weekend, Read touched on the possibility of a merger with rival Three or an investment in the newly-merged Virgin Media O2, as well as talking about his role in lobbying European regulators to loosen up on telco tie-ups.

Complaining about regulatory policy and market structure is in the job description for any Vodafone chief exec, so we shouldn’t be surprised at Read’s comments. The question is, is there any substance to his talk of M&A in the telco’s home market?

Probably. It would be unlike Read to wax lyrical on such a topic without there being anything behind it, albeit in response to what looks to have been a direct question on Three.

“I’m firmly supportive of consolidation on the right terms,” he told the paper, before apparently discussing at length the reasons why a merger with Three should be approved by regulators were the telcos to take such a route. He also added the usual caveat about how Vodafone is always talking to other market players.

It seems unlikely that there will be a big announcement alongside Vodafone’s second-quarter results tomorrow, but this is clearly not an impossible scenario.

Once at the forefront of the UK mobile market – admittedly, that’s some time ago – Vodafone is now an also-ran at best. In terms of mobile customer numbers, it is not actually that much bigger than Three these days; it had just shy of 17 million in June, excluding IoT, MVNO customers and so forth, while CK Hutchison-owned Three reported a total registered customer base of just under 13 million, although its active users number around 10 million.

A merger would put the pair just ahead of market leader Virgin Media O2, whose combined contract and prepaid mobile customer base came in at 24 million as of mid-year, and would presumably leave EE languishing behind; BT goes to great lengths to avoid sharing EE’s customer numbers these days, leaving us to draw only one conclusion.

Despite change at the top, the shape of the UK market does not look wildly different than it did back in 2016 when European regulators blocked Hutchison’s bid to buy O2 from Telefonica and merge it with Three. Had that deal gone through, we would have been left with two very strong players in O2/Three and EE, and a solid third-placed operator in Vodafone. The result of a Vodafone/Three deal would be similar, but with the three players closer in size. Hutchison has since had the court’s decision overturned; too late for that deal, but a move that could have a bearing on any new merger attempt.

Vodafone’s options are not limited to out-and-out mobile M&A though.

Pressed on the growing issue of fixed-mobile convergence – something that we have been talking about for years but has yet to fully take off in the UK – Read told the Sunday Times he is happy to rent fixed network from Openreach and potentially Virgin Media O2 in future, and raised the idea of investing and taking a stake in Virgin’s fibre network, in some form or other.

Partnering on fibre rollout is also an option in Germany, he said, a market in which the fibre landgrab is well and truly on, but where Vodafone operates a cable network that will need an upgrade.

The paper also floats the idea of a private equity takeover attempt, despite the deep pockets that would require, given that Vodafone’s share price has been on a downward trend for the past five years; Read took the top job just over three years ago, incidentally. While the CEO says he has not hired advisers specifically to defend against such a move, he makes the point that policymakers could protect against investors looking to make a quick buck buying and breaking up telco assets by allowing consolidation.

All of which points to the distinct possibility of a renewed M&A move in the UK in the near future. But just because something could, or even should, happen doesn’t mean it will. As per Read’s comment above, M&A is always about “the right terms.” Those terms are rarely easy to hammer out when you’re talking about two big telcos in a major market.

In summary, it’s a case of ‘no smoke without fire,’ but the fire likely needs a bit more fuel to keep it going.

About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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