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What’s European Cable Worth? – With no answer Cable has no way forward

The European Cable industry pulled itself together in Luzerne, Switzerland for its annual jamboree and look in the mirror and for the most part if lik


Published: 17 February, 2011


The European Cable industry pulled itself together in Luzerne, Switzerland for its annual jamboree and look in the mirror and for the most part if liked what it saw. But Europe remains a regulatory nightmare, with cable companies having their hands tied as four or five giants, propped up by the world’s largest private equity Groups, try to consolidate the remaining 7,000 European cable companies into a semblance of a coherent industry.

But it is perhaps the past which haunts European cable and every word spoken at this event was designed to shore up the image of an industry that let itself and investors down ten years ago and still can’t be completely forgiven for it.

For a variety of reasons, but mostly down to meeting the costs of government imposed build out targets, cable operators were never the most loved of investments across the European region, so much so that with the exception of the UK, private equity has come to the rescue of the mostly analog community and began during the 90s and early 2000s, the job of upgrading European cable from analog to digital. In the UK it was, of course, far worse, where debt for equity swaps at NTL and Telewest turned the two remaining (out of 21) cable operators, into investment pariahs, as the banks took 99% ownership of the cablecos they bailed out with borrowings, squeezing mostly US investors down to a meager few percent. Today, after a merger with Virgin Mobile UK, that business is an accomplished quadruple play, with the new name of Virgin Media and some of the tarnish has washed away from the investment.

But those same banks have the same problem as all of Europe’s private equity held cable assets, and that’s how to market them to the public investor as a good, safe and valuable investment, and it is this that is on everyone’s mind as most of these investments are coming up for being 5, 6 or 7 years old and ripe for divestment.

So every world spoken at the show, while studiously failing to mention this state of affairs, is pointed at this problem. The messages were that cable is at the heart of “tectonic change”, that it is on the verge of broadband supremacy against Telcos, that the shift to digital is unassailable and that it is the ONLY option for a broadband strategy in Europe, meeting all its obligations now which were set for 2020 by European Ministers, and that it is on the verge of invading the enterprise businesses of Europe with 1 Gbps class broadband services.

We’re not saying that these message aren’t true, but we are saying that the “Lady Doth Protest too much,” and that all of this will come to nothing if cable cannot find suitors to buy them out of their hock to the major Private Equity groups around the world who have met the bill.

A few weeks ago it was made clear that there is an answer to both of cable’s questions, consolidating all the smaller businesses and placing a value on cable, simply by those which are already public, pulling on the public coffers to buy mid-tier players. Kabel Deutschland Group (KDG), freshly public in Germany itself and current valued at €3.5 billion and Liberty Global, public in the US and with valuation of $10 billion and $3.2 billion cash in hand, are among the declared bidders for Kabel Baden-Württembergs (Kabel BW). All the papers were reporting that the company could sell for as much as €3 billion ($4.07 billion), which is clearly a rumor placed out there for the wider delectation of the cable industry and not likely to be a true figure.

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