Shares in both BT Group (LSE: BT.A) (NYSE: BT.US) and Vodafone Group (LSE: VOD) (NASDAQ: VOD.US) rose by more than 2% when markets opened this morning, following news that mobile operator O2 is to be sold for 10bn to Hutchison Whampoa, the Hong Kong-based owners of UK operator Three.
If the deal goes ahead, it will mean that O2-Three is the largest mobile operator in the UK, pushing EE into second place and Vodafone into third.
So why do investors think this is good news for Vodafone and BT Group?
Competition down, prices up
At the moment, the UK mobile market has four competing network operators. If the O2Three deal goes ahead, then that number will be reduced to three, reducing the level of competition between operators.
The outcome of this is almost certain to be higher prices for customers. This will be bad news for most of us, but good news for cash-strapped Vodafone and for BT, which is in the process of negotiating a 12.5bn deal to buy EE (formed in by the merger of Orange and T-Mobile in 2010).
BT may steam ahead
If both mergers go ahead, the resulting landscape could look very attractive for BT shareholders. BT would own the second-largest mobile operator in the UK, along with the largest fixed-line and broadband network in the UK.
This, coupled with the firms growing television operation, would put BT in a strong position to dominate the so-called quad play market telephone, broadband, mobile and television.
Of course, regulator OFCOM may be uncomfortable about allowing BT to take such a dominant position in the market. However, to me, the fact that both BT and Hutchison have agreed deals of this size suggests that both firms lawyers are confident the regulator will allow them to proceed.
What about Vodafone?
The obvious positive for Vodafone is the potential for price rises, but leaving that aside the picture isnt quite so rosy.
Vodafone would become the UKs smallest physical network operator. Although it has recently bought cable networks in Germany and Spain, its fixed-line assets are weaker in the UK and it lacks fixed-line telephone, broadband or television offerings. It also lacks the low-cost credentials of Three.
As a result, I wouldnt be surprised if a third deal, involving Vodafone and perhaps Virgin Media or Talk Talk, follows todays news.
However, despite this positive outlook, I think that BT and Vodafone already look fully priced.
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