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Is BT About to Join the $24 Billion Network Bonanza?

Alex Webb

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For BT Group Plc, two things have long been sacrosanct: the dividend and ownership of its lucrative network. In 2020, it seems, the temple walls are being torn down.

Over the past few years, carriers across Europe have looked at the vast sums needed to upgrade their fiber-optic connections and roll out fifth-generation wireless networks, and then at the lofty valuations put on existing network assets. One by one, they’ve decided to raise money from the latter to fund the former. It was a puzzle why Britain’s former national telecoms operator continued to be a holdout.

On Thursday, the Financial Times reported that BT is in talks to sell a stake in broadband infrastructure division Openreach in a deal that could value it at 20 billion pounds ($24 billion) — twice BT’s market value. The report came a week after the company scrapped its dividend. If true, it would reveal just how urgently the London-based firm needs cash to fund a multibillion-pound full-fiber upgrade program, honor its pension commitments and preserve its investment-grade credit rating, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Matthew Bloxham. There’s also the 5G network to think about.

There would be hurdles to a deal — not least, foreign ownership of Britain’s main fixed network. The FT named Australia’s Macquarie Group Ltd. and an unidentified sovereign wealth fund as the potential investors. What's more, Jansen bought 2 million pounds of shares this week — if a deal really were in the works, it's unlikely that BT's compliance team would have permitted such a trade.

BT Chief Executive Officer Philip Jansen has already been making a lot of the right moves to get in shape for the challenges ahead. The abandoned dividend and a new cost-cutting program will bring savings of some 5 billion pounds over the next five years, while the U.K. government has pledged a further 5 billion pounds to accelerate the rollout of fiber optic networks. But it’s hard to look beyond the huge appetite for network infrastructure, and the valuations similar assets have attracted.

Just last week, Liberty Global Plc’s British broadband business was valued at 9.3 times Ebitda (a measure of operating performance) in a deal to combine it with Telefonica SA’s local mobile unit. BT as a whole is valued at just 1.3 times earnings on the same basis. The operator might have acted sooner were it not for Chairman Jan du Plessis’s staunch opposition to any divestment. Shortly after announcing Jansen’s appointment as CEO in 2018, du Plessis told the Daily Telegraph that 100% ownership of the division was best for “BT, for Openreach and for our stakeholders.” Just last week, when asked about the possible separation of the unit, Jansen responded, “Not now.”

But selling a minority stake in the unit looks like the right move to shore up the company’s balance sheet. The right price would help BT stomach the humble pie brought on by a reversal of strategy, and reassure investors that, yes, even after the network investments, one day, the dividend will return.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Alex Webb is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe's technology, media and communications industries. He previously covered Apple and other technology companies for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.

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