BT has reportedly started talks to sell a multibillion pound stake in Openreach, which runs the UK’s broadband network.
Openreach, a subsidiary of BT that operates as a legally separate entity, has been the subject of rumours of interest from infrastructure and private equity investors for years.
However, news of a potential sale of a stake comes a week after BT scrapped billions in dividends payments as the telecoms company pledges to invest £12bn in upgrading the UK’s broadband network with next-generation full fibre connections.
Potentially interested investors could include Australian bank Macquarie, which has been actively involved in the UK telecoms scene for years, and an unnamed sovereign wealth fund, according to the Financial Times.
However, Reuters reported that a source close to Macquarie said it had not expressed interest in Openreach and was not in talks with BT.
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Openreach’s steady income stream from millions of broadband customers throughout Britain, and its wholesale agreements with rivals including Sky and TalkTalk, make it a crown jewel earner for BT and highly valued as a potential target for outside investors.
However, the company finds itself in an unprecedented situation, pushing through multibillion cost cuts affecting thousands of staff, at the same time as BT’s stock market value hits lows not seen since the last financial crisis in 2009.
Offers of a potential sale of a stake in Openreach value it at £20bn, according to the FT, which is double BT’s market value. At a stroke, a sale would cover BT’s financial issues including a hefty pension deficit and the huge costs of the nationwide rollout of full fibre broadband over the next decade.
However, given Openreach’s national strategic importance it would be a highly political and complex move, likely to involve investigations by regulators Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority, before any deal was likely to come to fruition.
Public records filed on Thursday show that Philip Jansen, BT’s chief executive, purchased almost £2m in shares as a show of faith in the telecoms company. The shares were bought on Wednesday, and there is no suggestion that they were acquired with any knowledge of a potential transaction relating to Openreach.
Jansen, who has already made a fortune from his exit from WorldPay before joining BT last year, bought 1.8m shares at just over £1 in a transaction announced to the stock market on Thursday.
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