Vodafone and Three UK Strike Deal to Create UK’s Largest Mobile Phone Operator

Vodafone and CK Hutchison, the owner of Three UK, have reached an agreement to merge their operations, forming the largest mobile phone operator in the UK.

The deal, subject to regulatory approval, will see Vodafone holding a majority stake of 51% in the newly combined group, which will solely consist of their respective UK operations. If given the green light, the merger will bring together a staggering 27 million mobile customers, resulting in BT-owned EE losing its top position in terms of customer numbers, while also overtaking O2.

Competition Concerns Loom, as Regulators Assess Weaker Competition

However, the proposed merger is expected to raise concerns among regulatory bodies such as the Competition and Markets Authority. The fear is that the consolidation of Vodafone and Three UK could potentially lead to reduced competition in the market.

Regulators will carefully scrutinise the impact on consumer choice and market dynamics before granting approval.

Olexandr Kyrychenko, Partner at IMD Corporate, commented: “The Competition Markets Authority will be assessing whether the proposed merger will result in a substantial lessening of competition due to which consumers would be harmed (SLC). In assessing this question, the CMA will not merely look to whether there will be more pressure on rivals or whether there may be less choice of stand-alone providers available to consumers. Matters such as innovation and proposed investment into 5G infrastructure will also be relevant when assessing whether SLC has arisen. It is not uncommon for CMA to give conditional approval.

CK Hutchison (Three UK) and Vodaphone may feel bullish as a result of ECJ’s 2020 decision to annul the European Commission’s 2016 decision to block CK Hutchison’s proposed merger with O2. Having said this, the CMA has shown propensity to break ranks with EU regulators as recently as April this year when it moved to block Microsoft’s proposed acquisition of Activision Blizzard.

As such, it is difficult to predict whether CMA will allow this merger to move forward, however one would expect that conditions acceptable to CMA can be implemented.”

Investment Pledge Aims to Secure Regulatory Approval

To address these concerns and garner support from regulators and the government, Vodafone and CK Hutchison have committed to investing a substantial £11 billion over the next decade. The investment will focus on creating one of Europe’s most advanced standalone 5G networks. By presenting this investment pledge, the companies aim to convince regulators and the government that the merger is in the public interest and will bring significant benefits to the UK.

Three UK’s Owners Highlight Investment Consequences of Rejection

The owners of Three UK argue that without approval for the merger, they will be forced to scale back their investment in the UK. This perspective highlights the potential consequences of rejecting the deal, suggesting that the merger is essential for the continued growth and development of Three UK’s operations.

Vodafone’s Option to Acquire CK Hutchison’s Stake

As part of the merger plans, Vodafone will have the option to acquire CK Hutchison’s stake in the combined group three years after the merger. The completion is expected to take place by the end of 2024. This strategic option gives Vodafone the potential to further consolidate its position in the market and solidify its control over the newly formed entity.


Leadership and Cost Savings

The new business will be led by Ahmed Essam, the current CEO of Vodafone UK. The merger is projected to generate annual savings of £700 million by the fifth year.

While job losses have not been ruled out, concerns have been raised by the Unite union. The Union has labelled the deal as “reckless” and is calling on the government to reject it on security grounds due to CK Hutchison’s Hong Kong base, which is under Chinese control.

Debt Adjustment and Three’s Transfer of Funds

Unlike traditional mergers involving cash transactions, this deal will be executed through a debt adjustment process. Three will transfer £1.7 billion to the new company, enabling the merger to be completed smoothly. This approach eliminates the need for substantial cash exchanges and streamlines the integration process.

Vodafone’s Restructuring Efforts

The merger comes at a time when Vodafone is undergoing significant restructuring efforts. Last month, the company announced plans to cut 11,000 jobs across its markets as part of a strategic realignment.

Margherita Della Valle, Vodafone’s CEO, expressed her intention to improve the firm’s competitiveness and position it for future growth.

Positive Outlook and Transformative Potential

Della Valle hailed the merger as a transformational move that would benefit customers, the country, and competition. She emphasised the creation of a best-in-class 5G network, positioning the UK as a leader in Europe.

Della Valle believes that the merger will lead to sustainable growth, increased employment opportunities, and enhanced innovation, making it a pivotal development for the UK telecom industry.

Source: BBC