Vodafone ready to rule as lord of the rings

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The Independent Online

When he finally triumphed over what were apparently insurmountable odds to acquire Mannesmann of Germany, Vodafone's chief executive Chris Gent might have expected the stock market to have reacted more graciously.

This, after all, was the deal the City had implored Mr Gent to make. That Vodafone was still digesting its recent merger with America's Airtouch was no reason to delay, the men in pin-striped suits told him. Nor was the fact that no German company had fallen victim to a hostile takeover by a foreign company a cause to tarry.

Mr Gent did their bidding, and by January, when victory was in sight, investors showed their appreciation by sending Vodafone shares to a new high of 399p. Unfortunately, the market's habit of buying the rumour but selling the fact was promptly invoked, and ever since the Mannesmann deal was confirmed the shares have been falling. They closed on Friday at 300.25p.

In part, this sell-off was the natural reaction of shareholders eager to bank profits Vodafone's heady rise had afforded. But there were fundamental concerns too, not least the need to negotiate the regulatory demands of the EU. The fate of Orange, Mannesmann's mobile phone operator, which Vodafone is obliged to lose, was another cloud on the horizon.

On top of all this came the auction for the third generation of mobile phone licences. The five packages on offer, which were expected to fetch about £5bn, are under the hammer for almost £18bn, with no end in sight to the bidding. Vodafone and BT are vying for the most valuable licence, B.

The fear that Vodafone among others is throwing good money after bad in pursuit of a licence has undermined its share price, but unfairly so. The capacity it offers for revolutionising mobile phone technology is so great that failing to win one is unthinkable. The new generation of mobile phones promises to unleash Vodafone's vast potential for providing internet services to businesses and consumers.

In any case, Vodafone's £200bn market capitalisation suggests that if any company can confirm the fee, it can. And even a bill of £6bn ceases to look so forbidding when divided among Vodafone's 9 million existing UK subscribers.

Vodafone's hopes of digesting Mannesmann smoothly received a boost last week when the EU cleared the deal. The disposal of Orange, due later this year, is expected to go with a bang. In the meantime, Vodafone remains the only pure cellular play on the stock market at a time when the UK's mobile phone ownership could top 60 per cent by 2001. Indeed, there are those who see penetration reaching 100 per cent. In that case, Vodafone would be an each-way bet as the world's first $1,000bn company.