What’s up with... BT, Cellnex, data centre M&A

  • More speculation swirls around BT
  • Cellnex lands 5G private networks deal in UK
  • American Tower and CyrusOne strike M&A deals

Ongoing speculation surrounding a potential swoop on BT stock and another feather in the Cellnex private networks cap top today’s news roundup.

With December only a couple of weeks away, BT’s top management will soon be opening the flaps on their executive Advent calendars to see what exciting pre-Christmas gifts are lurking within... A miniature edition of zingers from the Ben Verwaayen joke book, perhaps? Or maybe a few kernels that fell down the cracks in Ian Livingston’s hot-air powered bean-counting machine? Or even one of Gavin Patterson’s unused mother-of-pearl shirt buttons? Oh, the treasures, the joys, the anticipation...  until it comes to December 11. That’s the date that will be worrying BT’s top brass because it’s the day the billionaire corporate raider Patrick Drahi’s time-limited pledge not to make a takeover bid for the UK’s incumbent telco expires. Back in June, Drahi gave a legally-enforceable “binding commitment” that would not launch such an attack for six months – and time’s almost up. On June 10, the billionaire founder of Altice, the French multinational telecoms and mass media company headquartered in the Netherlands, bought a 12.1% stake in BT for £2.2 billion (approx US$2.95 billion) and, according to Reuters, is keen to get his hands on some more. Germany’s Deutsche Telekom (DT) owns 12.06% of the UK operator and DT’s CEO Tim Hoettges comment of Friday of last week will only fuel BT’s concerns. He said that DT is “reviewing its options” on its BT assets and “is keeping all options open.” Drahi has had his eyes on BT for quite some time and despite a share-price uplift that followed the news that BT hit its cost-savings target well ahead of time, the stock is still well down on what it was five years ago. Drahi expects that BT’s success in rolling out superfast fibre broadband via it’s semi-detached Openreach business will continue to create value and would like a bigger slice of a potentially highly-profitable pie. Adam Crozier, sometime CEO of Britain’s greatly diminished Royal Mail service, will become BT’s new chairman on December 1. A worrying Christmas and New Year looms for him, BT’s board and its grand fromages... 

Highlighting the growing competition in the enterprise wireless networks sector, Cellnex UK has been awarded a 5G private network contract by Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council that will see the neutral host giant build a dedicated mobile network, comprising a 5G core and radio access network, in Basing View, Basingstoke’s central business district. “The council’s vision is to create a comprehensive 5G ecosystem focused on commercialisation where businesses can access 5G connectivity to develop, trial, and bring new products, services, and applications to market,” noted Cellnex in this announcement. Cellnex threw its hat into the private networks ring in mid-2020 with the acquisition of Finnish specialist Edzcom, and says it has now deployed more than 35 private wireless networks across Europe.  

It's been a big day for data centre M&A deals: American Tower has slapped down $10 billion to acquire CoreSIte, a provider of data centre campuses; while CyrusOne, a real estate investment trust that invests in carrier-neutral data centres, has announced a deal to be acquired for $15 billion by private equity firm KKR and Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP).  

Australian operator TPG Telecom says it has dramatically increased its 5G footprint, lowered latency, and boosted mobile broadband speeds by turning on its 5G standalone core system to support its 700 MHz 5G services. The operator says it has built its 5G core using a combination of technology from the sector’s two largest and fiercest rivals, as it has combined packet core capabilities from Ericsson with subscriber data management solutions from Nokia. Read more

That news follows hot on the heels of TPG’s announcement that it had completed a trial of 5G virtual RAN trial and integrated mmWave technology for the 26 GHz band with SamsungRead more.   

Some plaudits and more brickbats for Huawei. It’s not quite all bad news for the Chinese comms equipment manufacturer. The President of Pakistan, Dr. Arif Aklvi has thanked and congratulated the Chinese comms equipment manufacturer and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) (the telecoms regulator) for their contributions to the digitalisation of the nation and said, “Technology is running ahead of us and we need to take hold of it by adopting a proactive and marketable approach. China is an inspiring model in making strides in the sector.” Speaking at the Pakistan National Broadband Network Forum, the President said he hoped the meeting “will help promote constructive dialogue on broadband expansion and accelerate the rollout of fibre-optic and 5G services in Pakistan.” It certainly gave some senior Huawei representatives the opportunity to mount a PR offensive in which the company stressed that since 1998 it has used its “technical expertise to continuously build Pakistan's ICT ecosystem and co-operate with 60 cooperated with more than Pakistani universities in establishing ICT academies and training training about 40,000 students."

Meanwhile, in the US, President Joe Biden has signed into law the Secure Equipment Act, which will prevent Huawei and ZTE from being awarded telecom licenses by requiring the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the US regulator, to take no cognisance of any licence applications from companies deemed to be threats to US national interests and/or security, which Huawei and ZTE are. Others specifically named in the legislation are Hytera Communications Corporation, Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Company, and Zhejiang Dahua Technology Company. The Bill got bipartisan backing and passed unanimously in the US Senate. The FCC itself has brought forward new regulations retrospectively to revoke licences it has already awarded. The first company to get the bum’s rush was China Telecom's US subsidiary. The FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said the Secure Equipment Act will "help to ensure that insecure gear from companies like Huawei and ZTE can no longer be inserted into America's communications networks". Senator Marco Rubio added, “The Chinese Communist Party will stop at nothing to exploit our laws and undermine our national security. This legislation fixes a dangerous loophole in our law, curtailing their efforts to worm their way into our telecommunications networks.” Seeing the writing on the Great Wall, the Chinese authorities got their retaliation in first. Back in June a Foreign Ministry spokesman issued this statement, “The United States, without any evidence, still abuses national security and state power to suppress Chinese companies.” Unbelievable. Later this week, Joe Biden and Xi Jinping are scheduled to have a virtual meeting to discuss the seemingly endless deterioration in relations between the two countries. That’ll be an hour or so of knock-about fun.

Vodafone Group CEO Nick Read appears to have been prepping the markets and regulators for some M&A and/or investment deals during an interview with The Sunday Times newspaper, saying that a combination of Vodafone UK with the smallest of Britain’s mobile network operators, Three, should be something the authorities would allow, because the markets across Europe are still overpopulated with too many infrastructure-based service providers. “I’m firmly supportive of consolidation on the right terms,” he noted, while also urging greater infrastructure sharing: “The sector is destroying value by duplicating infrastructure,” he noted, which is why Vodafone UK is rolling out fibre broadband services over the wholesale infrastructure run by CityFibre and Openreach and why it’s still possible that Vodafone might become a co-investor in Virgin Media O2’s FTTP rollout. 
BT has used “the spread of viruses in human populations as a model” to inform the AI processes in an epidemiology-based cybersecurity prototype called Inflame, which “uses deep reinforcement learning to enable enterprises to automatically detect and respond to cyber-attacks before they compromise a network.” Inflame is a “key component” in the recently-announced Eagle-i cybersecurity platform. Read more.

Gilat Satellite Networks says its satellite cellular backhaul network is extending its coverage to a dozen countries across Africa following an agreement with Africa Mobile Networks (AMN), which has “deployed Gilat hubs and placed additional orders of Gilat cellular backhaul terminals to serve multiple Tier-1 telcos in Africa.” Read more.

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