Eir owner and French billionaire Xavier Niel has surprised the telecoms world by acquiring a 2.5pc stake in Vodafone – one of Europe’s biggest telecoms companies.
The move, made through Mr Niel’s Atlas Investissement subsidiary, has led to speculation over whether Mr Niel intends to try again to buy one of Vodafone’s European operations, or pursue a greater share of the overall group.
Earlier this year, an €11bn offer from Mr Niel’s Iliad subsidiary for Vodafone’s Italian business was rejected.
If the billionaire were to increase his stake in Vodafone further, it could lead to interest from Ireland’s telecoms regulator, Comreg.
Vodafone remains Ireland’s largest mobile operator and the second-largest fixed-line broadband seller.
While Atlas Investissement says it is separate from the Iliad Group, the ownership connection would not go unnoticed by competition regulators here.
A spokesperson for Comreg declined to comment.
In a statement, Atlas Investissement said Vodafone was an “attractive investment opportunity, as per the quality of its assets portfolio and the solid underlying trends in the global telecoms sector.”
The statement added that Atlas was supportive of Vodafone’s publicly stated intention to pursue consolidation opportunities, as well as its efforts in infrastructure separation.
Atlas reported its stake in Vodafone, even though it was under the 3pc threshold for holdings to be made public.
Mr Niel has telecoms investments in nine countries in Europe, with nearly 50m active subscribers and more than €10bn of revenue.
In Ireland, Mr Niel has been raising cash through a combination of dividends from Eir and selling some of the company’s strategic assets.
This year, Eir struck a deal to sell 49.9pc of its fibre network to French investment firm InfraVia for €350m, following the sale of its majority stake in the Tetra emergency communications network for €76m. In 2020, it sold its tower infrastructure company for €300m.
And while its most recent accounts show a decline in revenue and profits, Mr Niel took €190m in dividends from the company.
Italy, which has been one of the most competitive markets in Europe since Iliad’s entry in 2018, has been identified by Vodafone as one of the countries that could benefit from consolidation.
Mr Niel’s Iliad subsidiary has established a reputation as a specialist in low-cost communications that aggressively captures market share.
In Ireland, Eir’s cut-price Gomo mobile operator raced to over 5pc market share within two years of launching, sparking a change in market offerings.