Satellite phone company plans pounds 200m share issue

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THE directors of ICO, the low-profile hi-tech company based in Hammersmith, London, will discuss plans tomorrow for an initial public offering of shares worth between pounds 200m-pounds 300m. Tentatively scheduled for the first half of the year, the offer will give UK investors a chance to get in on one of Wall Street's hottest areas - the nascent satellite- based mobile phone industry.

"I cannot comment," said Olof Lundberg, ICO's chief executive. "We have raised pounds 1.3bn privately. We need to raise another pounds 1.6bn. We are ruling nothing out."

"They are definitely coming to market," said Cynthia Boeke, editor of the Washington-based Via Satellite magazine. "Satellite ventures are big on Wall Street now. The company wants to raise money sooner rather than later."

A spin-off of Inmarsat, the inter-governmental London-based agency that offers maritime and aviation communication facilities to members, ICO is one of three companies vying for the market composed of businessmen interested in mobile phones that can be used worldwide and governments in the developing world that plan to use the leading-edge technology to set up rural telephone networks.

The other two companies are Iridium, a consortium sponsored by the US telecoms giant Motorola, and Global Star, a second consortium of which Vodafone is a member. Iridium plans to launch its service in September; Global Star next year; and ICO in 2000.

"The late entry may not be a disadvantage," said Jeremy Rose, founder of the St Albans-based satellite consultancy Comsis. "The others could introduce the market, then ICO could come in and offer a competitive service cheaper."

ICO needs additional funds to pay for the launch of 12 satellites, under construction by Hughes Space and Communications International, intended for a middle-earth orbit 10,355 km high.

The first satellite is due to be launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida next September.

Dresdner Kleinwort Benson and Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette will make presentations to the ICO board, convening in Bangkok. "The lead manager of the IPO has not been named," said a person close to the pros-pective offering. "But these two have the inside track, because they were appointed to lead a private equity issue last December that did not happen."

Instead, ICO raised pounds 200m through a rights issue extended to its 58 investors, a miscellany of state telephone companies and private individuals.

"ICO feels a certain sense of obligation to the two banks," said the source close to the deal. "But other banks will still compete for the business."

After its public offering, ICO is expected to solicit additional funds through an issue of high-yield - or junk - bonds. "There should be a lot of activity soon, because ICO wants to come to market before Iridium launches its service, in case anything goes wrong with the service, and this undercuts enthusiasm for satellite ventures," said Ms Boeke.

Olof Lundberg profile, page 3