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United may float telecoms division

UNITED Utilities yesterday said it might float its telecommunications arm on the London stock market if the business continues to grow as quickly as it did last year.

The chief executive, Derek Green, said turnover from telecommunications tripled last year to pounds 23.4m as business customers such as Manchester Airport switched to its fibre network for data and voice services.

But United believes there is potential to use Digital PowerLine technology to deliver faster and cheaper Internet connections to 2.2 million homes in United's core northwest market using existing electricity cables. Mr Green said: "This is a nice business similar to Colt which is a stock market darling. If we continue to get a low utility rating we will need to float [telecommunications] in whole or part."

Analysts agreed the business was exciting but said United, which controls Norweb and North West Water, would be judged in the near term on the way it was treated by its industry regulators.

Set up three years ago, the telecommunications arm lost pounds 5.2m last year but this was translated into a pounds 200,000 profit in the 12 months to 31 March. United admits a flotation is unlikely in the next two years.

Like other utilities, United is keen to expand outside of its traditional water, gas and electricity distribution whose future profitability will be held back by tighter regulation.

Yesterday the group revealed a profit before tax and exceptional items up 3.7 per cent year on year to pounds 460.5m. Turnover from continuing operations rose 2.3 per cent to pounds 2.1bn and United unveiled a final underlying dividend of 27.64p making 40.8p for the year, up 9.7p. Its shares closed up 9.5p at 828p.