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BT jittery about Cellnex snapping up UK mobile tower assets

Brit telco says buyout will mean less competition, higher prices, cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria

BT has spelled out its opposition to the proposed takeover of Hutchison’s mobile phone masts and towers in the UK by Spanish towerco Cellnex following the publication of legal documents yesterday.

BT – which owns mobile outfit EE – backs the Competition and Merger’s Authority (CMA) investigation into the deal, insisting that if it goes ahead, it could have a lasting impact on the UK’s mobile landscape.

In November 2020, CK Hutchison Holdings, the Hong Kong-based firm that owns UK network Three, confirmed plans to sell its European tower business to Cellnex, the Spain-based operator of wireless telecoms infrastructure.

To date, all of Hutchison's cross-Euro deals with Cellnex have been granted regulatory approval – except in the UK, where some 6,000 cell towers are up for grabs.

In July, the CMA confirmed plans to press ahead with a Phase 2 investigation into the deal amid concerns regarding the competitiveness of the UK's mobile industry and access to cell tower infrastructure, in a move that has been backed by BT.

"The Merger would represent a significant development in the UK wireless telecommunications sector, raising serious competition concerns that will adversely affect the supply of access to developed macro wireless telecommunications sites and ancillary services to BT and other UK wireless communication providers," said the UK telco.

In the four-page document [PDF], BT argued that Cellnex "already holds a very strong position in the relevant UK markets", which includes the Spanish towerco’s buyout of British mast outfit Arqiva for £2bn in October 2019, making it the largest independent operator of wireless infrastructure in the UK.

Coupled with the addition of Three UK’s mobile phone infrastructure assets, BT claims the proposed merger would "strengthen Cellnex’s already significant market position, resulting in price rises" for operators.

BT went on to say that it considers the deal would "materially enlarge the already significant share of the Relevant Market held by Cellnex" and would "remove any realistic scope for Cellnex’s smaller competitors to achieve critical scale in the short-to medium-term".

This would, it said, "inevitably lead to higher prices for the services offered by Cellnex to BT and other UK wireless operators and lower service levels."

Last week, a joint legal document from Hutchison and Cellnex warned that any attempt to block Cellnex's takeover of Hutchison UK's tower network could see consumers "significantly worse off" and hamper the progress of Three UK's planned £3bn investment in 5G.

What's more, they claimed that the UK competition watchdog's decision to probe the sale was flawed and based on a "simplistic and misleading" assessment rather than a proper understanding of how real-world markets operate.

Both Hutchison and Cellnex declined to comment. No one from BT was available for comment at the time of writing. ®

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