Cable group Liberty Global not sure mobile 'a must-have'

Reuters

* To offer quad-play in all markets in coming years - CFO

* Says mobile strategy is defensive, not frontal assault ontelcos

* Few opportunities for more acquisitions in Europe - CFO

By Leila Abboud

BARCELONA, Nov 20 (Reuters) - Liberty Global,Europe's biggest cable group will sell mobile services as partof all-inclusive bundles across its 12 markets in the comingyears but is not yet convinced that such so-calledquadruple-play offers are a big attraction.

Chief Financial Officer Charles Bracken told Reuters thatLiberty does not want to buy or build its own mobile networksand will buy in capacity instead on a wholesale basis instead inoffering all-inclusive bundles of television, Internet, mobileand fixed-line services.

"We need to be able to react if and when markets evolve toall-inclusive bundles but we're still not totally convinced thatquadruple-play is a must-have," said Bracken on the sidelines ofa Morgan Stanley investment conference.

"Our strategy on mobile is 'capital-light' and defensive.We're not trying to disrupt or attack," he said.

Liberty's key product offering is broadband with speeds ofup to 120 megabits per second, fixed phones and television, butoffering a mobile service too as a mobile virtual networkoperator (MVNO) can help keep customers loyal.

In Germany, Liberty could launch quad-play offers as italready does in Britain, where it acquired Virgin Media in a$15.7 billion deal earlier this year, but it will not make thefirst move unless market leaders Deutsche Telekom andVodafone go down that route, Bracken said.

However, Vodafone has just completed its $10 billionacquisition of Germany's largest cable operator, KabelDeutschland so would be able to offer quad-play if itwanted to. Telecom companies in France and Spain haveaggressively marketed such all-included offers, which givecustomers a 10-25 percent discount on the whole, as a way toblunt customer losses in mobile.

Liberty markets its cable offers under the UPC and UnityMedia brands in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Austriaamong other countries on the continent and under the VirginMedia brand in Britain. The group says it has annual sales ofaround $17 billion with operations in 12 European countries aswell as Chile and Puerto Rico.

But it only has about 4 million mobile customers, with 3million of those with Virgin Media in the UK.

In Belgium it has about 700,000 and Germany only 196,000.

However, Liberty has signed eight agreements with telecomoperators, including Telefonica's 02, Orange, Vodafoneand Mobistar, to rent mobile capacity from them.Virgin Media in the UK has a long-standing MVNO agreement withEE, the UK operator which is co-owned by Orange and DeutscheTelekom.

Asked why Liberty would not be aggressive in the market formobile customers Bracken said the economics of re-selling mobilecapacity were not as attractive and it preferred to focus on thegroup's core broadband and TV products.

"There is little strategic imperative for us to build a bigbusiness in mobile," he said.

"But we are moving to an operational phase from adevelopmental phase in mobile."

In fact Liberty has just appointed as the new head of itsEuropean mobile operation Graeme Oxby, the former director ofMobile and Home Phone at Virgin Media, with a view to being "afull MVNO operator in most of its European operations".

DONE WITH BIG ACQUISITIONS

Bracken also said he does not see Liberty as undertakingfurther large-scale acquisitions either to expand into newcountries or fill out its current operations because fewsuitable targets remained.

"We are reaching the end of European consolidation," hesaid. "It's less a consolidation game now, and more of amonetisation period for us."

Shares in the Nasdaq-listed firm were up 0.5 percent at79.62 by 1538 GMT on Wednesday, a rise of 27 percent so far thisyear, just ahead of a 26.5 percent rise in the Nasdaq 100 index.

Liberty built its leading position in European cable viaacquisitions in the past decade, and the group now has 47million homes passed and 24 million customers. Although thereare some gaps in its European coverage, such as Scandinavia,France, Spain and Portugal, Bracken does not think large dealsare very likely.

"We used to be in France and Scandinavia and cannot reallysee us going back there, while in other places the cable assetsare not up for sale," he said, referring to Spain's Ono andProtugal's Zon.

"We will always look at deal opportunities since we are theconsolidator in Europe but there is not a lot left in terms ofM&A that will really move the needle for us."

However, with regard to buying the 71.5 percent of Dutchcable operator Ziggo that Liberty does not alreadyown, Bracken said it remained a long-term goal as it would reapsynergies from merging it with UPC in the Netherlands, but notat any price.

Last month Ziggo, which has a current market value of 6.3billion euros, said Liberty had made a takeover approach but ithad rejected it.

"Liberty has a track record of being disciplined on pricingon acquisitions," Bracken said.

"We're happy to sit where we are, and if the stars alignwe'd be happy to move as well, but for now they are notaligning."

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