Microsoft under fire for Telewest's lost deal

JUST DAYS after Barclay Knapp, chief executive of NTL, cemented the pounds 8.2bn takeover of Cable & Wireless Communications' residential networks, recriminations are mounting over the failure of rival suitor Telewest's key shareholders, Microsoft and Liberty Media, to seal an alternative deal.

The software giant Microsoft, which holds a 30 per cent stake, and Liberty, which owns 22 per cent, are blamed by insiders for botching Telewest's negotiating stance during the four months the number two UK cable company held talks with CWC. Mr Knapp sealed a deal on Monday, one week after Cable & Wireless granted NTL exclusivity in the negotiations.

"If anyone wants an answer to the question of why Telewest couldn't conclude a deal in the past four months it was because Microsoft and Liberty were playing it cute," said a source. "Sometimes you get too clever and you end up with your head up your own [bottom]."

Others say the key Telewest shareholders, which also include Cox, the US cable operator, were focused on short-term investment goals, not the cable company's strategic interests.

"Telewest, as ever, has been hampered by multiple shareholder objectives," said an executive with a former shareholder. "Everyone was after their ideal deal, not the deal best suited for the company."

Executives at Cable & Wireless confirmed that confusion surrounded Telewest's negotiating position and the conflicting ambitions of its major shareholders. "We talked to everybody at Telewest and that was the problem," said Greg Clark, chief executive of CWC.

Microsoft, which will own about 3 per cent of NTL once the takeover of CWC's residential assets is concluded next Spring, is also said to be irritated about the outcome. Bill Gate's objective, analysts note, has always been to have the widest possible platform for its set-top box technology, rather than a big stake in one of two cable companies.

Mr Knapp, for his part, went out of his way on Monday to stress that relations with Telewest remain constructive and that Microsoft will be involved in talks to create one big UK cable operator. Analysts say a deal to bring Telewest into NTL is unlikely before next year.

Telewest shares, meanwhile, closed up 10p yesterday at 280.5p in heavy volume. Dealers said bargain hunters snapped up the shares after their recent decline from a high of 320p.

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