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updated: 9/2/2013 8:53 AM

Verizon doubles down on U.S. as AT&T seeks a hedge in Europe

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  • A Verizon Wireless billboard stands in San Francisco, California, U.S. on Thursday Aug. 29, 2013. Verizon Communications Inc.'s buyout of the rest of its wireless venture may yield more than $240 million in fees for the bankers lucky enough to win a role on the biggest transaction in more than a decade.

      A Verizon Wireless billboard stands in San Francisco, California, U.S. on Thursday Aug. 29, 2013. Verizon Communications Inc.'s buyout of the rest of its wireless venture may yield more than $240 million in fees for the bankers lucky enough to win a role on the biggest transaction in more than a decade.
    Bloomberg News

 
Bloomberg News

Verizon Communications Inc.'s plan to buy out its wireless partner for $130 billion is a bet that the U.S. mobile-phone market still has room for expansion even as competition intensifies and smartphone demand slows.

While owning all of Verizon Wireless -- the 14-year-old venture with Vodafone Group Plc -- would give Verizon a full share of earnings, the acquisition won't result in reduced costs or bring new products or services. That means Chief Executive Officer Lowell McAdam will have to persuade investors and bondholders that the profit growth he's getting will more than justify the heavy price tag.

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Verizon's gamble contrasts with AT&T Inc., which is hunting overseas for acquisitions that would offer better returns than the U.S. McAdam has used $5 billion in deals over his two-year tenure as CEO to invest in the American wireless business just as the industry's revenue growth stalls. The Vodafone deal would lay the groundwork for what McAdam is betting will be a demand boom for a broad range of telecommunications services.

"McAdam's strategy is to move away from being a traditional phone company," said Sam Greenholtz, a former Verizon manager now with SGTelecom Consultants in Westminster, Maryland. "He wants to make Verizon a mobile and fiber company, to provide the means of delivery for cloud services and broadcasts."

European Exit

Verizon has reached an agreement to acquire Vodafone's 45 percent stake in their U.S. wireless venture for about $130 billion, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions. A deal could be announced as soon as today, people familiar with the matter have said. Vodafone, having seen how slowing growth and stiffer competition can squeeze profit margins in its European markets, is poised to take Verizon's money and get out of the U.S.

Vodafone, based in Newbury, England, confirmed in a statement yesterday that it's in advanced talks to sell the stake to New York-based Verizon for $130 billion, with no certainty an agreement will be reached. Bob Varettoni, a Verizon spokesman, declined to comment on the deal with Vodafone.

Shares of Vodafone rose 3.7 percent to 213.80 pence at 10:26 a.m. in London. Verizon fell 0.9 percent to $47.38 in New York on Aug. 30, and AT&T advanced 0.5 percent to $33.83.

Airwave Acquisition

A look at Verizon's two biggest transactions under McAdam, 59, shows what his company is up to. A year ago, the carrier completed a $3.6 billion deal to acquire wireless airwaves from Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable Inc. and Bright House Networks, its nemeses in the competition for landline Internet users. The companies also pledged to work together on services for consumers.

Just a month earlier, Verizon acquired Hughes Telematics Inc. for $612 million, gaining technology that wirelessly links machines such as cars and medical devices to the Internet for monitoring and services.

McAdam connected the dots on the two transactions for investors in December at a UBS AG conference. Each device that accesses the Internet wirelessly -- a tablet computer, a TV, a car, an insulin monitor, a thermostat -- presents another opportunity to wring sales from Verizon's network.

"If we can bring some video applications and some intelligent home and some health care applications, the revenue per account we see trending upward," he said. "Somebody might pay 25 cents or 50 cents a month for a thermostat."

Connected Devices

While wireless growth has slowed in the U.S. because most people already have a phone and a data plan, McAdam said the industry is on the cusp of a new surge in demand because everyone will want their other products to work on the network.

"It's just funny that we still talk about 90 percent, 95 percent, 100 percent penetration as a ceiling," he said on a conference call with investors last year. "You start adding in all your appliances and your cars and your home and your security system and all that stuff, and I think we can keep growing. That's part of our job."

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson has expressed a similar vision, and pursued his own $39 billion deal to acquire Deutsche Telekom AG's T-Mobile USA in 2011, eventually getting blocked by regulators seeking to preserve competition.

While he has continued to snap up smaller wireless companies and airwave licenses, Stephenson's attention has turned to Europe. He has said he sees a "fascinating" opportunity to invest in wireless Internet on the continent, which has been leapfrogged by the U.S. in mobile technology.

AT&T Prowls

"AT&T has been looking elsewhere in the world to acquire assets, and Europe looks like the most attractive to them," Craig Moffett, an analyst at Moffett Research LLC, said in an interview last week on Bloomberg Television. "Their strategy, instead of trying to double down in the U.S., is to look elsewhere."

AT&T may consider bidding for Vodafone's remaining assets, people familiar with the matter said last week.

Unlike Europe, where wireless revenue slumped 4.3 percent last year, North America is still growing and has even accelerated the past two years as the economy recovered, climbing 8.7 percent. Still, it's been lower than the double- digit annual rate the industry enjoyed before the recession. Voice revenue has declined for four years, with data sales growth leveling off at 24 percent to 25 percent since 2010.

New Threats

Slowing U.S. growth isn't the only reason to be skeptical of McAdam's strategy. He's facing new competitive threats as smaller carriers embark on revamped strategies. Sprint Corp. is ratcheting up investment on its network after a $21.6 billion takeover by Japan's SoftBank Corp. this year. T-Mobile US Inc., the product of a merger between Deutsche Telekom's U.S. unit and MetroPCS Communications Inc., is offering European-style plans that separate phone costs from service contracts.

"Vodafone's management may be looking at the U.S. and saying to itself, 'We've seen this movie before,'" Moffett wrote last week in a research note. "There is little prospect for things getting materially better" for Verizon Wireless, and "a meaningful chance that things get worse."

Debt investors have balked at the potential deal, pushing up yields on Verizon bonds in an indication of the transaction's risk. Verizon may have to take on $60 billion in new debt to fund the acquisition, Barclays Plc said. Yields on Verizon's $1.75 billion of 2.45 percent notes due November 2022 rose to 4.13 percent last week, from 3.91 percent before Vodafone said it was in talks with Verizon about the stake sale.

The more optimistic argument is that Americans continue to want to be less and less tethered, even as they demand more and more digital services and video. That's what Verizon is counting on.

"The world is going increasingly wireless," said Howard Ward, chief investment officer at Gamco Asset Management Inc., in an interview on Bloomberg TV's "Surveillance" last week. "This is going to be a very good business for a very long period."

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