Vodafone and CK Hutchison have formally declared their intention to merge their UK operations, but obtaining regulatory approval may not be straightforward or swift. The majority of their joint announcement is dedicated to convincing regulators that reducing the number of UK mobile network operators from four to three would be beneficial.
A special website and video were created to explain how the UK would benefit if the companies were allowed to merge. Ahmed Essam, Vodafone UK Chief Executive, stated that the combination would offer more choice and better value to customers throughout the nation. By merging, the companies would be able to invest in a top-in-class 5G network and continue supporting vulnerable individuals with social tariffs.
Robert Finnegan, CEO of Three UK, believes that merging the two companies would bring 5G advantages to every UK household and business. This would enable the UK to deliver on its digital and economic growth ambitions while meeting the government’s objectives for a world-leading digital economy.
Margherita Della Valle, Vodafone Group Chief Exec, and Canning Fok, Group Co-Managing Director of CK Hutchison, also expressed their enthusiasm for the merger’s potential benefits. They believe the merged company would be able to achieve the necessary scale to deliver a top-quality 5G network, transforming mobile services for customers and creating new opportunities for businesses across the country.
Although the government and regulators have yet to comment on the proposed merger, it seems likely that the companies would not have taken this step without some assurance that the merger would be permitted. However, the approval process could still take a considerable amount of time.
Kester Mann of analyst firm CCS Insight suggests an £11 billion network investment plan may help to ease regulatory concerns, but the deal will still face a significant challenge in winning approval. Vodafone and Three recently raised their tariffs by up to 14.4%, which could make the prospect of the deal leading to higher prices a considerable concern for the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).
Independent analyst Paolo Pescatore believes the deal should be approved, as it would be better to have three strong providers rather than two dominant and two sub-scale ones. Blocking the merger could hinder the long-term development of the UK’s telecoms infrastructure.
If the merger is eventually approved, the new company—tentatively referred to as ‘MergeCo’—will be 51% owned by Vodafone, with an option to buy the remaining stake from CK Hutchison in the future. Essam would take the lead in the new company, while Finnegan may explore other opportunities. The announcement concludes by suggesting that the deal could close by the end of 2024, although the CMA may be able to expedite this process.