Vodafone sales hit as Orange heads for market debut

Vodafone's level of net new subscribers has slumped to about 100,000 in the first quarter of the year from 180,000 in the same period in 1995. Numbers at Cellnet are also thought to have suffered as both companies feel the increasing competition from Orange, whose shares begin trading on the stock market today at an expected top of the range price of 205p.

Vodafone has yet to publish figures for the quarter, but industry sources believe the market leader took on about 30,000 net new customers in both January and February and is expecting around 45,000 for March.

There is a view that the March pick-up is partly due to Vodafone's new range of consumer-oriented tariffs, which follow Orange's lead in offering a certain number of "free" call minutes for a given monthly charge. The company is also planning a major advertising and marketing campaign to fend off the threat from Orange and the other relative newcomer, One-2- One.

According to one City analyst, "Once Orange had built their quasi-national network it was always going to start taking more market share. There is also the fact that the market is not growing as fast as it once was."

The slowdown was particularly marked in December, when the mobile market fell sharply from the record levels in December 1994. The drag on growth in the approach to Christmas marred the overall performance for 1995, which was the best year so far for the industry.

Cellnet is also thought to have suffered in the first part of this year from a very high level of people leaving its network. Many of these signed one-year contracts during the boom around the end of 1994 and are now free to break away.

The Orange flotation, in which 25 per cent of the company's shares are being sold, is likely to value the company at pounds 2.45bn. The two existing shareholders, Hutchison Whampoa of Hong Kong and British Aerospace, will own 50.49 per cent and 22.92 per cent following the sale.

Instititutional investors have subscribed for more than nine times the number of shares available and 30,000 small investors have applied for shares. There is likely to be some scaling back in allocations to private investors although this may be limited as Orange is thought to be keen to have customers also owning shares.

There is a view in the City that up to half the shares available to institutional investors could go to those in the US. The UK is expected to get the lion's share of the balance.

The exact pricing and details of the allocations are due to be announced this morning, with dealings in the shares starting at 2.30pm. Some City analysts expect the price to jump to around pounds 2.50 on opening.