MMC mobile phone referral pushes down telecoms stocks

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The Independent Online
SHARES in Vodafone and British Telecom dropped sharply yesterday as investors took fright at the decision by Don Cruickshank, the telecoms regulator, to refer the companies to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission for charging too much for delivering calls to mobile phones.

Shares in Vodafone fell 20p to 516p while BT ended the day down 13p at 592p. Shares in Securicor, which has a 40 per cent stake in Cellnet, which was also referred to the MMC, closed down 16p at 364p.

Mr Cruickshank said the cost of calling a mobile phone was still too high at 32p per minute. He believes the cost should fall to about 20p per minute. According to Oftel, this move would cost the mobile phone operators about pounds 200m.

Analysts played down the move, arguing that even if the MMC found against the telecom operators most of them had been planning to cut charges anyway. "This is a bit of a storm in a tea cup because everyone is anticipating that the rates for calling into mobiles will fall and that's already factored into our financial models", said ABN Amro Hoare Govett analyst Jim Ross.

Mr Cruickshank's complaint is about termination charges - the cost that mobile phone operators charge to other companies for delivering a call to a phone connected to their network. He also criticised BT for taking a larger margin on a call to a mobile phone than on a call to a land line.

Vodafone, which runs Britain's largest cellular network, said the company was planning to cut charges in August - a move that would take the cost of calling a mobile close to Mr Cruickshank's target. "Based on that there will be less than 3p between us," said Vodafone chief executive Chris Gent. "That's not a basis for an MMC referral."

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