Vodafone and Three in merger talks to become UK’s biggest mobile operator and ‘accelerate’ 5G rollout

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The two major networks could merge to create the biggest mobile operator in the UK

Mobile networks Three and Vodafone are in merger talks that could see a combined company become the biggest mobile operator in the UK..

The networks hope that a combination of their UK operations can help them compete with their rivals in the roll-out of 5G.

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Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

What would the merger look like? 

The owners of the networks said they are in talks about a deal which would create a new major player in the UK mobile market.

In an update to shareholders, Vodafone said: “By combining our businesses, Vodafone UK and Three UK will gain the necessary scale to be able to accelerate the rollout of full 5G in the UK and expand broadband connectivity to rural communities and small businesses.”

The new potential deal would see Vodafone own 51% of the new business, and Three Owner CK Hutchinson would take the rest.

Their combined business would have around 27 million customers, taking their joint 30% market share above Virgin O2’s 28%, and EE’s 26% share. It would also reduce the number of competitors in the UK from four to three.

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There will be no immediate impact on customers of either company as the deal is currently only in talks, but that could change if it does go ahead.

If a deal was to be agreed it would still have to be approved by regulators which could take some time.

The two companies hope the combined size of their business will help them move from a situation where the returns on their investments are not enough to cover their costs.

However, the companies would accelerate the rollout of 5G and rural broadband but any deals would need to be scrutinised by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

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Vodafone said in a statement: “The conditions to ensure thriving competition in the market need to be nurtured, otherwise the UK is at risk of losing the opportunity to be a 5G leader.”

They referred to a report from regulator Ofcom which found that both Vodafone and Three have in recent years delivered returns on investments that are lower than the cost of the capital they used.

“Vodafone and Three may not have covered their cost of capital.

“If ROCE (return on capital employed) was to fall, or was expected to fall, below the cost of capital for a sustained period of time for any MNO (mobile network operator), this could dampen its incentive to invest,” the report from February this year said.

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Vodafone said: “As Ofcom has identified, some operators in the UK – Vodafone UK and Three UK – lack the necessary scale to earn their cost of capital.”

It added: “The merged business would challenge the two already consolidated players for all UK customers and bring benefits through competitively priced access to a third reliable, high quality and secure 5G network throughout the UK.”

As companies prepare to phase out their 3G network – Vodafone will do so in 2023 – 5G is being credited with potentially transformational abilities.

A report from Vodafone published in 2020 argued that the roll-out of 5G could bring more than £120 billion in productivity gains to the UK economy between 2025 and 2030.

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