Telecoms titans O2 and Virgin Media tie the knot

O2 and Virgin Media are set to merge and create a new company worth £31bn. What does this mean for the industry? Matthew Partridge reports

Virgin Media employee © Universal Images Group via Getty
A Virgin/O2 tie up could benefit shareholders © Getty
(Image credit: Virgin Media employee © Universal Images Group via Getty)

Telefonica and Liberty Global have agreed an “industry-defining deal”, say Rodrigo Orihuela and Thomas Seal on Bloomberg. They are creating Britain’s largest phone and internet operator by merging Telefonica’s 02 and Liberty’s Virgin Media to create a new company valued at £31bn. Both companies will have equal stakes in the venture, will name half of the board of directors, and can also appoint the firm’s chairman on a rotating two-year basis. Liberty will pay Telefonica a total of £8.2bn to reflect the difference in the current size of both companies.

The joint venture between Liberty, owner of Virgin Media, and O2 parent Telefonica may seem like an “odd pairing” given that Liberty is run by an “anti-establishment financial innovator” while Telefonica “sits at the centre of Spain’s corporate establishment”, says Christopher Williams in The Daily Telegraph. Still, the immediate cash payment will help Telefonica reduce its large debts, while both sides will benefit from the fact that the promised £540m in cost savings “should be readily achievable”. In the longer term, the new company should be well placed to benefit from the industry-wide trend toward converged services that “blend mobile and broadband”.

Not so fast, says Chris Nuttall in the Financial Times. It’s true that with the spread of 5G and fibre to the home, anyone able to combine wireless and fixed-line in a “seamless superfast future” will have an advantage. Nevertheless, creating “converged telecoms titans” is “no guarantee of success”. After all, BT was “five years ahead of the game” in the UK when it said it would buy mobile operator EE in 2015. But this hasn’t stopped its shares falling by 80% since, and it has just cancelled its dividend for the first time in 36 years.

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Even if cost reduction means that the deal does prove to be a bonanza for shareholders, consumers are unlikely to see any benefits in terms of lower prices or better service, according to Nils Pratley in The Guardian. Far from stimulating competition by reshaping the industry, the joint venture between the “biggest cable owner” and the “biggest mobile operator” will “probably do the opposite” by cementing market shares. As a result, regulators should be on “high alert” either to block the deal or at least to extract “a few upfront benefits” for consumers in return for approval.

Competition concerns are unlikely to stop the deal, says Ingrid Lunden on TechCrunch. It’s true that Telefonica and Liberty Global have had previous merger efforts thwarted after regulators “put up flags over antitrust violations”. Competition concerns meant that Telefonica’s previous efforts to divest O2 in a merger with Three “went nowhere”. However, at present we are seeing regulators take a “different tack”. They aim to approve and clear a “backlog of deals” more rapidly in addition to giving them “more open-minded” treatment in order to “keep the economy turning”.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri