Vodafone CEO Ahmed Essam has warned that if the Vodafone–Three merger is stopped by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), vital investments in digital UK infrastructure will be prevented

This week, the head of Vodafone UK has stressed to regulators that the planned merger between Vodafone and Three will be critical to achieving the government’s 5G rollout targets. CEO Ahmed Essam told The Times that if the deal is blocked the group “won’t be able to invest as much, and we won’t be able to deliver the 5G ambition that’s coming in the wireless infrastructure strategy from the government.”   

The government’s Wireless Infrastructure Strategy, published in April, set out a plan for the UK to bring world-class digital infrastructure to the entire UK, aiming to provide nationwide coverage of standalone 5G to all populated areas by 2030 

Vodafone and Three signed a formal £15 billion merger agreement last month, a deal that will see the newly combined company majority-owned (51%) by Vodafone, with Three UK’s parent company, CK Hutchison taking the remaining 49%. No cash will be exchanged under the agreement. 

If approved, the newly merged group will become the largest mobile network operator in the UK, surpassing both Virgin Media O2 and EE, with more than 27 million customers. 

The deal will see the two companies invest £11 billion in UK mobile infrastructure. This includes promises to reach 99% of the UK with their newest 5G standalone network by 2034 and offering fixed wireless access to 82% of UK households by 2030. 

“As a country, the UK will benefit from the creation of a sustainable, strongly competitive third scaled operator – with a clear £11bn network investment plan – driving growth, employment and innovation,” said Vodafone Group Chief Executive Margherita Della Valle. 

“The combination of Three UK and Vodafone UK will bring the advantages of 5G to every business and household in the UK, enabling the UK to deliver its ambitions for digital and economic growth and fully supporting the UK Government’s objectives for a world-leading digital economy,” added Three UK CEO Robert Finnegan. 

However, critics have warned against the monopolistic nature of the merger, which they argue will lead to higher prices and job cuts. They point to similar mergers in other markets, such as Vodafone Hutchison’s combination with TPG in Australia in 2020, which saw prices increase for customers and investment in the sector decrease, according to research from trade union Unite. 

As a result, the CMA and other regulators are expected to take a largely skeptical view of the deal and are likely to impose stringent conditions on the duo before agreeing to give the deal the green light. These conditions could involve anything from forbidding the company from hiking prices for a number of years to divesting of spectrum – a commodity in which the newly merged entity will hold a major advantage over rivals.  

How will the merger play out? It is sure to be a hot topic for discussion at Connected Britain this September – get your ticket today! 

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