Vodafone closes in on American giant

VODAFONE, the fast growing mobile phone company, looks set to wrap up its $55bn (pounds 34bn) stock-and-cash bid for AirTouch, its American counterpart, this week. "I think we could see the outlines of a deal as early as Monday," predicted Steven Jobber, a telecoms analyst at Paribas.

With MCI WorldCom ruling itself out of the bidding on Friday afternoon, that left only Bell Atlantic, the company that put AirTouch into play with a New Year's Eve $45bn all-stock bid, in the running against Vodafone.

There have been rumours that the three companies might get together. One notion is that Vodafone would spin off AirTouch's US operations to Bell Atlantic after completing its deal for the company, which has extensive operations in the parts of Europe where Vodafone is absent.

A second notion is that the newly merged Anglo-American mobile phone company, VodaTouch, might enter into a joint venture with Bell Atlantic to offer a combination of fixed-wire and wireless telecommunications services.

But on Friday, a Vodafone spokesman downplayed talk of a three-way deal. "We may not have been interested in the US in the past," he said. "But we are interested now, because our European businesses are more mature. We have made a bid for the whole of AirTouch, including its US operations."

Andrew Webber, a telecoms analyst at management consultants Arthur D Little in London, endorses AirTouch's take-all strategy. The fit between the two companies begins, he says, with the fact that there is almost no overlap between their European operations. "Together, they have the second [largest mobile phone operation] in almost every European country," he says, "with 20 to 30 per cent of the market in each."

But a total merger between the two companies makes most sense, Mr Webber continues, when you look into the future. A transatlantic company offering one mobile phone service to businessmen would be attractive - although, Mr Webber adds: "The best mobile phone customers are not executives, they are jobbing builders and plumbers using their mobiles all day long."

The real benefits of a merger, he concludes, will only become apparent when the next generation of mobile phones comes along, allowing users to link into data transmission devices.

"Then you could imagine VodaTouch being the logical phone company to sign deals with Microsoft and Disney or News Corp," he says.

The price Vodafone is prepared to pay is high, according to analysts. It represents a premium of 50 per cent over the stock market value of the San Francisco-based company before Bell Atlantic made its bid.

But, suggests Dresdner Kleinwort Benson analyst James Dodd, wireless is shaping up to be the hot area of the hot telecoms industry in 1999.