Drahi's increased BT stake gets UK government blessing

Speculation over BT's future can begin again in earnest after Altice's stake-building was given the all-clear from the UK government.

Nick Wood

August 23, 2022

3 Min Read
customer service

Speculation over BT’s future can begin again in earnest after Altice’s stake-building was given the all-clear from the UK government.

French telco group Altice – controlled by billionaire Patrick Drahi – set tongues wagging last December when it increased its shareholding in the incumbent to 18 percent from 12.1 percent. In the post-Huawei scaremongering era, foreign involvement in UK critical infrastructure attracts government scrutiny like never before. Ergo in May, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng launched a full national security probe into the matter.

“Following careful consideration, the government will take no further action on the acquisition of 5.9 percent shares by Altice in BT and the final notification has been issued to [both] parties,” said a statement issued on Tuesday by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

BT acknowledged the development in a brief statement of its own, while Altice seems to be keeping quiet for now.

The government also stressed that it has the power to launch a fresh investigation should Drahi decide to further add to his BT holding.

What Drahi decides to do next is the multi-billion pound question everyone is asking.

As Telecoms.com has previously reported, Drahi is 12 percent short of the 30 percent threshold that would trigger a mandatory takeover offer to BT’s shareholders. Deutsche Telekom happens to hold a 12 percent stake in BT and it is widely believed that DT’s CEO Tim Höttges is open to selling it.

Drahi’s hands have been somewhat tied by the national security review and before that the UK standstill regulations, which prevented him from further stake-building for six months following his last bout of share buying. With both of those hurdles out of the way, he is free to buy up more of BT, should he so desire.

But is that what he wants to do?

When Drahi first invested in BT, he claimed it was because he was impressed by its FTTH rollout but wanted to accelerate the programme by bringing to bear Altice’s own experience and expertise. It makes sense, given the rate at which BT’s Openreach arm is passing premises with full fibre.

However, capitalising on an aggressive FTTH deployment is a far cry from owning BT outright, and all the baggage that comes with it, not the least of which is the telco’s seemingly-perpetual pension deficit. Then there are the never-ending ups and (mostly) downs of its Enterprise and Global divisions, both of which have struggled for growth for years. If Drahi attempted to take full control of BT – and it is a long-shot given the degree of government scrutiny such a bid would garner – his plan for the telco might include hiving off the underperforming parts of the business and focusing on Openreach and the Consumer division.

Drahi’s other motivation for buying into BT is financial, but if he was after a quick return, he has made a miscalculation. BT’s shares are trading lower today than they were when Drahi first invested, underperforming the FTSE 100, which is up over the same period. If Drahi wants to profit from his BT investment, he either needs to wait for CEO Philip Jansen’s turnaround plan to bear fruit, or take matters into his own hands.


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About the Author(s)

Nick Wood

Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.

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