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Cellnex complains regulators waved through CK Hutchison mast buyout in Europe – only sticking point is the UK

Cell tower acquisition faces full inquiry from Britain's Competition and Markets Authority

Cellnex's efforts to buy the UK mobile infrastructure assets of CK Hutchison – including some 6,000 cell towers – have hit a regulatory snag after the competition regulator opted for a full inquiry into the deal.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is concerned about the impact the proposal might have on the competitiveness of the local mobile industry and how that might hinder access to mobile infrastructure such as cell towers for other operators, setting out those concerns in Phase 1 of its investigation summary published earlier this month.

Cellnex has already hit back, saying the deal is "strongly pro-competitive" and will create "firm incentives to unlock, improve and extend mobile coverage, including 5G, across the whole of the UK."

This latest ruling goes back to last year when it was announced that Cellnex planned to fork out €10bn on a Europe-wide buyout of wireless telecoms infrastructure currently owned by CK Hutchison Holdings.

At the time, it was reported that the acquisition would bring some 24,600 towers into Cellnex's portfolio of 60,000 masts across Europe, including some 6,000 mobile phone towers across Britain.

Two weeks ago, the CMA raised "concerns" about the proposed acquisition by Spain's Cellnex of thousands of mobile phone towers currently owned by CK Hutchison Holdings, UK network Three's Hong Kong parent.

It pointed out that Cellnex is already the "largest independent supplier of mobile towers in the UK" following its £2bn acquisition of Arqiva's telecoms division in 2020, which added around 8,300 sites to Cellnex's portfolio.

The CMA called on both buyer and seller to produce proposals to address those concerns or face further regulatory investigation.

Yesterday, the CMA decided to refer the deal to an in-depth Phase 2 investigation under section 33(1) of the Enterprise Act 2002.

It has already appointed Richard Feasey – a member of the CMA's specialist utility panel and former group public policy director at Vodafone – to head up the inquiry and has today published the terms of reference [PDF].

In a statement, a spokesperson for Cellnex insisted that the deal would improve mobile coverage across the UK.

The cell tower biz also pointed out that five of the six countries included in the buyout – Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, and Sweden – have all received the green light to proceed. The UK remains the only one not to give the go-ahead so far.

"We note the Competition and Markets Authority decision today about the proposed acquisition of CK Hutchison's passive telecoms infrastructure assets (or the economic benefit thereof) in the UK," said the spokesperson.

"We continue to believe that this is a strongly pro-competitive deal which will create firm incentives to unlock, improve and extend mobile coverage, including 5G, across the whole of the UK, and therefore we look forward to working constructively with the new CMA panel during its Phase 2 review to demonstrate this.

"For the avoidance of doubt, five out of the six deals between Cellnex and CK Hutchison have already completed, and the CMA's decision relates only to the deal in the UK."

A spokesperson for CK Hutchinson declined to comment. ®

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