Verizon Communications, the US telecoms giant, plans to sell its £2bn stake in Omnitel, the Italian mobile operator controlled by Vodafone.
It is understood that the 23 per cent stake could be officially marketed before the end of the year. The only serious bidder is thought to be Vodafone, which has stated that it wants to increase its grip on its overseas operations.
A spokesman for Verizon said: "We are evaluating our international portfolio and seeing how different companies fit in with our long-term investment strategy. But I can't comment on what we're going to sell." Vodafone declined to comment.
If Vodafone does pounce then it could spark a row with its shareholders. Already, the company has been criticised for its pursuit of France's SFR, in which it has a 20 per cent stake. Some investors would prefer Sir Christopher Gent's company to return cash to shareholders.
Buying the Omnitel shares would attract extra criticism because Vodafone already has a controlling stake.
Mark James, telecoms analyst at investment bank Nomura, said: "Our concern is that Vodafone may overpay as it has done in the past. This is especially the case with some of the smaller acquisitions made."
According to Nomura, Omnitel accounts for around 7 per cent of Vodafone's value. It is Italy's second-largest mobile operator. The Italian market is believed to have reached saturation point and there are concerns that operators will struggle to increase revenues.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies