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

Leila Abboud
Wednesday, 20 Nov 2013 | 10:43 AM ET

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

* Says mobile strategy is defensive, not frontal assault on telcos

* Few opportunities for more acquisitions in Europe - CFO

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

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

"We need to be able to react if and when markets evolve to all-inclusive bundles but we're still not totally convinced that quadruple-play is a must-have," said Bracken on the sidelines of a 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 of up to 120 megabits per second, fixed phones and television, but offering a mobile service too as a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) can help keep customers loyal.

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

However, Vodafone has just completed its $10 billion acquisition of Germany's largest cable operator, Kabel Deutschland so would be able to offer quad-play if it wanted to. Telecom companies in France and Spain have aggressively marketed such all-included offers, which give customers a 10-25 percent discount on the whole, as a way to blunt customer losses in mobile.

Liberty markets its cable offers under the UPC and Unity Media brands in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Austria among other countries on the continent and under the Virgin Media brand in Britain. The group says it has annual sales of around $17 billion with operations in 12 European countries as well as Chile and Puerto Rico.

But it only has about 4 million mobile customers, with 3 million 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 telecom operators, including Telefonica's 02, Orange, Vodafone and Mobistar, to rent mobile capacity from them. Virgin Media in the UK has a long-standing MVNO agreement with EE, the UK operator which is co-owned by Orange and Deutsche Telekom.

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

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

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

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

DONE WITH BIG ACQUISITIONS

Bracken also said he does not see Liberty as undertaking further large-scale acquisitions either to expand into new countries or fill out its current operations because few suitable targets remained.

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

Shares in the Nasdaq-listed firm were up 0.5 percent at 79.62 by 1538 GMT on Wednesday, a rise of 27 percent so far this year, just ahead of a 26.5 percent rise in the Nasdaq 100 index .

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

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

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

However, with regard to buying the 71.5 percent of Dutch cable operator Ziggo that Liberty does not already own, Bracken said it remained a long-term goal as it would reap synergies from merging it with UPC in the Netherlands, but not at any price.

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

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

"We're happy to sit where we are, and if the stars align we'd be happy to move as well, but for now they are not aligning."

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