* Towers deal could help Wind trim its 9.6 bln euros debt
* Advisers invite Spain's Abertis, infrastructure funds
* Potential Wind-3 Italia merger deal slips to 2015 -
By Pamela Barbaglia and Sophie Sassard
LONDON, Sept 4 Wind, the Italian subsidiary of
Russian telecoms group Vimpelcom, is moving ahead with
the sale and leaseback of 11,000 mobile phone masts in a
long-expected deal that could be worth at least 500 million
euros ($650 million), several sources familiar with the
The decision to move ahead with the masts deal comes after a
plan to merge Wind, Italy's third-biggest mobile network
operator, with rival Hutchison Whampoa's 3 Italia
stalled for several reasons, including governance issues and the
international political dispute between Russia and western
nations over Ukraine, said the sources.
However, a successful sale of the masts would help Vimpelcom
cut Wind's debt, which stood at 9.6 billion euros ($14 billion)
in June and has so far proved one of the hurdles to a proposed
merger with 3 Italia, the smallest of the country's four network
operators behind Telecom Italia, Vodafone and
Wind, the sources said.
Vimpelcom's advisers on the masts sale, Banca IMI
and HSBC, last month sent invitations called "teasers"
to more than 30 possible bidders including Spain's toll road
operator Abertis and other infrastructure specialists
like Italy's EI Towers, Australia's Macquarie,
France's Antin and American Tower and Crown Castle
, the sources said.
They will provide more detailed financial information
towards the end of September with a view to shortlisting up to
seven parties to submit bids, the sources added.
The sale would leave Wind owning less than 50 percent of its
Meanwhile both Vimpelcom and Hutchison are still working
with their advisers on a potential merger of their Italian
businesses, with HSBC and Morgan Stanley retained by Vimpelcom
and Goldman Sachs acting on behalf of Hutchison, several sources
In June Reuters reported that Hutchison Whampoa had resumed
talks with Vimpelcom, encouraged by European regulatory
approvals for merger deals in other national markets which
similarly would reduce the number of network operators from four
The parties, which have held on-off talks since last year,
are struggling to reach an agreement as neither wants to be the
seller, sources familiar with the matter said.
"The merger between Wind and 3 Italia is still months away,"
Separately, an industry consultant who has worked with
Vimpelcom said he believed that an agreement could be reached in
the first quarter of 2015.
Wind provides valuable international diversification to
Vimpelcom and its controlling shareholder, Russian tycoon
Mikhail Fridman's Altimo, has become even more reluctant to sell
since the escalation of the Russian dispute over Ukraine, the
Fridman, as a key shareholder in Russia's Alfa Group
conglomerate, is sitting on nearly $10 billion of cash and is
struggling to find investment opportunities at home, according
to one banker familiar with Vimpelcom.
Vimpelcom also needs a plan to offset growing instability in
its core markets of Russia and Ukraine and is in no rush to exit
Italy, its only European market interest, having earlier this
year pumped in 500 million euros of extra cash in Wind as part
of a refinancing.
As a result board representation and voting rights have been
one of the main sticking points as negotiations for a Wind and 3
Italia merger repeatedly stalled over control.
"The problem here is to strike a fair balance of power,"
said one of the sources.
Meanwhile a price war is weakening Italy's mobile phone
market and all the players are now constantly talking to each
other in an effort to predict their rivals' next move.
"Everyone is talking to everyone, but the only possible deal
is between Wind and 3 Italia," said a source close to the
Officials at Vimpelcom, HSBC and Banca IMI declined to
comment. A spokesman at Hutchison in Hong Kong could not be
reached for comment.
(1 US dollar = 0.7710 euros)
(Editing by Greg Mahlich)