Saturday 14 September 2019

Vodafone: Creating Europe's Largest Tower Company

Earlier this year Vodafone unveiled plans to spin off or float its telecom tower business, a company that would be valued at up to £18 billion and rocket into the FTSE 100.

The new standalone business, called TowerCo, will own Europe’s largest tower portfolio, comprising approximately 61,700 towers across 10 countries, with 75% of these sites in the major markets of Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. Total towers comprise 19,300 in Germany, 11,000 in Italy, 9,700 in Spain (adjusted for the sharing deal with Orange), 6,600 in the UK (representing 50% of total UK towers, consistent with Vodafone’s ownership of Cornerstone, the 50:50 joint venture company that owns and manages its passive infrastructure) and 15,100 in Other Europe (excluding VodafoneZiggo). The masts provide mobile coverage across each country allowing phone owners to make and receive calls and use data to access apps and websites. Income comes from leasing space on each mast to rivals offering their own mobile phone networks.

The business is estimated to generate about €1.7bn in revenues and €900m profits, leading analysts to value the business at between €15bn and €20bn, based on valuations of other mast businesses.

The deal would also allow Vodafone to focus on selling broadband and developing 5G services. TowerCo would allow rival telecom companies to share infrastructure, a move that will please City planners and environmentalists worried about the growth of the masts. The new company should be operational by May 2020. 

According to Nick Read, Vodafone’s chief executive:

“We are now creating Europe’s largest tower company. Given the scale and quality of our infrastructure we believe there is a substantial opportunity to unlock value for shareholders.”
Shares in the world’s second largest mobile operator climbed almost 10% as investors relished the prospect of a windfall from a sale or initial public offering of Europe’s largest towers company.

Vodafone intends to use the proceeds from the sale programme to reduce its levels of debt, 
which reached €48bn when the company completed its €18.4bn deal to buy Liberty Global’s German and eastern European cable assets. 

Vodafone has also spent €4bn on 5G spectrum as prices ballooned in auctions in Germany and Italy during the past year. According to George Salmon, equity analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown.

“Yes, Vodafone will lose the profits associated with running the towers, but it will also remove the €200m of annual spending tied up maintaining and expanding the network. So it’s easy to see the logic for the deal, especially since the group’s debts are fairly pressing.”
Vodafone has launched 5G roaming in 55 towns and cities across Italy, Spain, Germany and the UK. However, coverage remains limited, as the company only switched on 5G in Britain in July 2019.

Towers have become a key trading asset for cash-strapped European telecoms companies in Europe, with businesses including Telefónica, Iliad, Altice, Sunrise and BT selling masts.

US and African carriers were quicker to sell their towers than their European peers but the rising value of infrastructure assets has led many networks to consider deals to generate cash for 5G investments. That has given rise to specialist tower businesses including Spain’s Cellnex, which has built a base of 45,000 masts largely via acquisition. 

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