Orange is not looking to go it alone in the towers space. Quite the opposite, in fact: it is seeking a partnership with one or more fellow telcos, ideally Vodafone or Deutsche Telekom.
When Orange published its plans to spin off its tower operations in France and Spain into the newly-christened TOTEM early on Thursday, it made it quite clear that it wanted to keep control of its passive infrastructure.
“Orange wishes to retain control of TOTEM to benefit from the important source of sustainable value creation it provides for the Group,” were its exact words. Meanwhile, a canned statement from CEO Stéphane Richard talked about the telco’s determination to “keep these strategic assets within the scope of the Group.”
But when Richard spoke to analysts via Webcast later in the day, it quickly became clear that the telco has a pretty loose interpretation of what the word “control” actually means.
“We want to keep a controlling stake, either alone or with another big operator,” Richard said.
Right. Well, that’s a very different story than Orange going it alone in a market currently awash with massive towers deals.
Richard has two big operators in mind and – in what was something of an unusual development for this kind of telco analyst call – he was willing to provide names and dates…almost.
Possible partners could include Vodafone, which spun off Vantage Towers last year and has still yet to provide more information on an IPO slated for early 2021, and Deutsche Telekom, whose domestic Deutsche Funkturm business has been a separate entity for many years; Deutsche Telekom recently brokered a towers deal with Cellnex in the Netherlands (and set up an investment fund to look at investments in infrastructure assets), but was quite insistent that the deal did not necessarily reflect its plans for its other towers assets.
“The game of European consolidation will be in the next month, around those two players,” Richard said. The big three, including Orange, “have cards in this game,” he said.
That’s a tight timeframe, especially considering Orange is not in formal talks with either Vodafone or Deutsche Telekom at present.
The telco has a back-up plan should its big telco tower merger not come to fruition though.
There is a second tier of smaller European operators that “are thinking about doing something with their towers,” Richard said. These tier two players, in Northern and Southern Europe, “might be interested in joining a towerco,” he said.
However, selling to a neutral host like Cellnex – as another major European player, Telefonica, has recently agreed to do – is not an option. “Telefonica has made a different choice,” because it does not view its towers as a strategic asset, Richard said. “This is not, clearly, our view.”
But Orange still has other options for TOTEM. The business will have a flexible capital structure that could be open to financial or strategic partners, or even a flotation, explained Orange’s chief financial officer Ramon Fernandez. “Listing is not an objective as such,” but it could be a means to create value, he said. “It’s a world of opportunities.”
Provide those opportunities allow Orange to retain a level of control it is comfortable with, of course.