Might there be a Slim chance for Digicel?

Liberty Global in talks to take over Cable and Wireless Communications

Denis O’Brien:  Digicel’s $2 billion flotation was pulled earlier this month after he declined to slash its price to tempt investors. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Denis O’Brien: Digicel’s $2 billion flotation was pulled earlier this month after he declined to slash its price to tempt investors. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

 

Where to now for Digicel, hitherto Denis O’Brien’s cash cow? First, it pulled its $2 billion flotation earlier this month after O’Brien declined to slash its price to tempt investors. Now, the Caribbean mobile company’s biggest rival, Cable and Wireless Communications (CWC), is in talks to be taken over by John Malone’s Liberty Global.

The Wall Street Journal has suggested a Liberty-CWC deal could be completed in weeks. For Digicel, this would be a nightmare scenario. Digicel’s mobile revenues are being eaten up by internet applications such as Snapchat and Facebook, so O’Brien needs to move it into broadband and cable television.

The problem for O’Brien is that Malone is the global king of cable. If Liberty gets control of CWC, it will turn Digicel’s one-time sleepy rival into a formidable regional quad play – mobile, broadband, home phone and cable – operator.

Liberty Global’s chief executive Mike Fries hinted at its intentions in September. “That region as a whole requires massive consolidation. It is fragmented. It is underpenetrated. It is inefficient. If there was ever a part of the world that would benefit from the kind of things we do in terms of bringing rational consolidation to these broadband connectivity platforms, we think this is.”

How O’Brien must rue the day last year when he allowed CWC to sneak in ahead of him and take over cable operator Columbus, which put it on Malone’s radar, for $3 billion. O’Brien was furious, but said it was only worth $2 billion.

Missing out on that deal now looks like a critical error.

If Malone enters the fray and blocks O’Brien’s route to quad-play, then Carlos Slim, one of the world’s richest men, blocks his route to new markets. Slim and O’Brien have form and the Irishman has been wary of bringing Digicel deeper into Slim’s turf of Latin America, which should be its next natural destination.

If O’Brien ends up with Slim on one side of him, and Malone on the other, he could well get squeezed. If Fries is right and the region is ripe for consolidation, what part might O’Brien play in that? As a buyer or seller?

A tie-up between Digicel and Slim’s America Movil would buttress both in the region.

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