UK mobile phone auction nets billions

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The auction for next-generation mobile phone licences in the UK is over, leaving Chancellor Gordon Brown with a £22.47bn ($35.4bn) windfall.

The five winners are TIW, a US-Canadian company backed by Hong Kong conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa, and the four companies that currently run mobile phone services in the UK – BT Cellnet, Orange, One2One and Vodafone Airtouch.

The auction was over when cable company NTL, backed by France Telecom, dropped out of the race.

The move had been widely expected after NTL called for a 24-hour time-out in the auction. In a statement the company said that “other strategies” offered better values – a hint that it might try to merge with or take over a rival operator.

The auction result leaves market leader Vodafone with one of the strongest of the mobile phone licences, while BT Cellnet has to make do with a weaker frequency.

The best licence, though, had been reserved for a newcomer and was snatched by TIW.

Thirteen bidders had driven up prices well beyond the original estimate of a total auction value of £5bn. The £22.47bn windfall is equivalent to £400 per person in the UK.

However, no major spending spree is expected. Instead, the government plans to pay off national debt with the proceeds.

The money may not all be forthcoming at once as the licence winners have the option of paying in instalments over the 20-year licence period, with half paid up front.

Orange takeover war

The result will trigger a take-over war for Orange, which was recently bought by Mannesmann of Germany but must now be sold after the German firm was bought by rival Vodafone Airtouch.

There has been speculation that France Telecom may try to buy Orange as an alternative route to taking over a licence, and merge it with its NTL customer base.

Telefonica of Spain is also expected to express an interest. High-profile companies which have fallen by the wayside as the stakes have risen include Spectrum – a consortium including Virgin and Tesco – Irish telecoms group Eircom, Australian company OneTel as well as Telefonica.