Vodafone can invest in Europe without Verizon sale, says CEO

BARCELONA Mon Feb 25, 2013 7:55am EST

BARCELONA Feb 25 (Reuters) - Vodafone says that it does not need to sell part of its stake in the highly profitable Verizon Wireless joint venture in the United States to bolster its position in Europe.

Speaking to reporters at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Vodafone Chief Executive Vittorio Colao said that the British company had a healthy balance sheet and could invest when it needed to.

Analysts have suggested that Vodafone, the world's second-largest mobile phone operator, could reduce its 45 percent stake in Verizon Wireless to fund the purchase of assets such as fixed-line companies to counter strong competition in Europe.

"The two things are not totally linked," Colao said. "Of course, having a healthy balance sheet and a very profitable, dividend-generating asset in Verizon helps.

"If it is right to make some investments, we will make some investments," he added.

Vodafone has hired Goldman Sachs to advise on a possible 10 billion euro ($13.2 billion) bid for German cable operator Kabel Deutschland, a source with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

It has also been linked with possible deals in Spain.

Sector bankers and some analysts argue that Vodafone needs to acquire fixed assets to fight off challenges from low-cost mobile players and telecoms and cable rivals pushing discounted, all-inclusive mobile and fixed bundles.

Buying its own fixed assets, such as local cable operators or alternative telecoms providers, would help the company to keep up with competitors' offers and cut fees paid for fixed access.

Vodafone, unlike its main rivals, is focused mainly on mobile operations in continental Europe. So far it has pursued only a modest approach to buying fixed assets country by country, otherwise renting access to reach consumers' homes and businesses.

However, it may soon be forced into bolder action if results start to suffer from what Goldman Sachs analysts have called a "structural squeeze on mobile-only operators".

Though Vodafone's Colao emphasised the strength of the company's balance sheet and healthy income from Verizon, he said that he has an open mind about the possibility of changes in the joint venture's ownership.

"I have always said the board keeps reviewing the Verizon situation because it's big," he said. "And we have an open mind."

The Italian executive added that he had seen consumer confidence fall even further in his home country since October because of political uncertainty as it awaits the results of this week's national election.

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