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UK government reviewing stake in BT owned by French tycoon Patrick Drahi

First use of National Security and Investment Act powers as Altice owner looks poised to increase stake further

The UK government has kicked off a national security assessment on the investment in BT by French telco tycoon Patrick Drahi, who via his Altice UK organisation topped up his stake to 18 percent late last year.

Announced today, the probe is understood to be one of the first such uses of new powers the UK government granted itself under the National Security and Investment Act, which came into force at the start of the year.

In a statement, the government said the acquisition by Altice UK in December of a further 6 percent of shares in BT was called in for a full national security assessment by Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.

Under the terms of the National Security and Investment Act, the government has 30 working days (but this can be extended by up to a further 45 working days) to carry out that reivew, and the process is now under way.

Altice confirmed it had made a £2 billion investment in BT Group in June 2021. This initially gave it a 12.1 per cent stake in the UK's former state-owned monopoly, which operates much of the country's telecommunications infrastructure via its Openreach subsidiary, as well as providing services to business and consumer customers.

As The Register reported at the time, the investment was made by Altice UK, a company set up as a vehicle for this purpose by billionaire Drahi, owner of the Altice Europe telecoms conglomerate. Drahi said that he would not attempt a takeover of BT, meaning he was bound by stock market regulations that prevented him from taking any further action for six months.

When those six months had elapsed in December of 2021, Altice UK increased its stake in BT Group to 18 per cent, with Drahi then repeating that he did not intend to launch a full-blown bid to buy the entire business.

However, the move has clearly caused concern for the UK government as this has made Drahi the largest current shareholder in BT Group, and after another six-month hiatus, he will be free to further increase his stake in the company. That period will elapse next month.

As noted by Bloomberg, Drahi's interest in the company has been the subject of much speculation since the initial investment last June, leading to concerns that it represents a creeping takeover attempt that will eventually give the billionaire overall control of BT Group.

Telecoms industry analyst Paolo Pescatore at PP Foresight told us that this latest development should not come as a huge surprise.

"The probe was widely expected given the stake building in BT by a foreign investor. Ultimately this comes down to Altice's overall intentions and whether this represents a security risk to UK plc. More so given that Openreach operates the largest telco network in the UK," Pescatore said.

BT said in a statement that it had been notified of the investigation, and that it would fully cooperate.

"BT Group plc ('BT Group') has received notification from the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy that he has considered the increase by Altice UK of its shareholding in BT Group from 12.1 percent to 18 percent and is exercising his call-in power under section 1 of the National Security and Investment Act 2021. BT Group will fully cooperate with this review."

For the financial year ending 31 March 2022, BT Group's reported revenue was £20.8 billion with reported profit before taxation of £1.96 billion.

This latest review appears to reflect growing concerns from the government with regards to foreign ownership over and investment in UK companies, especially those involved in key technology areas.

As an example, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has now begun a full national security assessment into the acquisition of Newport Wafer Fab by Nexperia in August 2021. Newport Wafer Fab is one of the few facilities left in the UK that still manufactures semiconductors, and while Nexperia is a Dutch company, it is now a subsidiary of Chinese outfit Wingtech Technology.

These concerns have come rather too late for companies such as chip designer Arm, which was allowed to be swallowed up by Japanese investment biz SoftBank in 2016. However, action from the UK government's Competition and Markets Authority did apparently contribute to the subsequent sale of Arm to US-based Nvidia being knocked on the head earlier this year due to concerns that the deal might stifle competition by giving Nvidia the power to limit access to Arm's chip designs. ®

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