Italian mobile rivals line up bids for BT's Blu

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The Independent Online

Blu, the Italian mobile phone operator in which BT owns a 29 per cent stake, yesterday said all five of Italy's third-generation phone licence holders are considering launching bids for the group.

Vodafone-controlled Omnitel, Telecom Italia Mobile, the France Telecom venture Wind, Telefonica's Ipse and Hutchison were all said to be carrying out due diligence on the loss-making company.

Blu, which failed to obtain a 3G mobile phone licence, set a deadline of 28 January for receiving bids. Previously, analysts had speculated that Spain's Telefonica, Hutchison and Wind would be the most likely suitors.

In addition, all seven of Blu's shareholders, which have made no secret of their desire to exit the group, agreed at yesterday's meeting to continue funding Blu for another month while negotiations continued. BT has estimated its exposure to Blu at around £20m a month.

The key shareholder meeting had already been postponed twice, in the hopes that a bidder would have materialised.

Blu confirmed last month that the Rome-based Professor Pellegrino Capaldo had been appointed to explore opportunities for selling the whole business. Blu's six other shareholders include the Benetton family and Distacom each with a 9 per cent stake. Caltigirone, Italgas and Banca Nazionale del Lavoro each hold 7 per cent while Autostrade has a 32 per cent share.

The venture, however, has been fraught with shareholder disagreements – something that forced it to pull out of the Italian 3G auction in its early stages.

A spokesperson for BT said yesterday that the company was "pleased" both that Blu's shareholders had agreed to continue funding the operation and that outside parties continued to show interest in Blu. Last month, BT was forced to buy up Mediaset's 9 per cent share in Blu for €106m, putting a valuation on the firm of just over €1bn.

However, the European regulator has also ordered the Benetton family to sell its interest in Blu as a concession to allow its purchase of a controlling stake, with Pirelli, in Olivetti, which controls Telecom Italia.

Separately, Hutchison Whampoa's Italian operation yesterday announced it had won €4.2bn of financing from banks and equipment vendors to help build out its telecoms network.

Hutchison said it had struck an agreement with 11 banks to provide a €3.2bn facility while unnamed "major" equipment vendors had committed €1bn.

Vincenzo Novari, chief executive, said: "We believe being the first 3G company in Europe to have ensured availability of all our funding requirements for the next 10 years provides us with a significant competitive advantage."

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