Bidder Emerges for Finnish 3G

It's almost as if Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. is single-handedly supporting the 3G sector at the moment. The Hong Kong company's Swedish business, Hi3G Access AB, has confirmed it has bid for Telia AB's Finnish 3G assets. The Swedish telco must sell all its mobile holdings in Finland to meet the regulatory requirements surrounding its merger with Sonera Corp. (Nasdaq: SNRA) (see Finnish 3G License for Sale).

Should its bid be successful, Hi3G, in which Whampoa holds a 60 percent stake (Investor AB owns the other 40 percent), would then hold three Scandinavian 3G licenses -- it already has Swedish and Danish permits in the bag. Hutchison is planning an announcement tomorrow (Wednesday) concerning the offer.

"We have placed a bid for Telia Mobile Finland's 3G license and some assets," states Niclas Lilja, director of communications at Hi3G, adding that that was as much detail as his company was releasing about the bid.

The fact that the license is available for purchase at all is interesting, as only weeks ago the Finnish regulator told Unstrung that the license would be returned to the authorities and made available to bidders through another 3G "beauty contest" (see Europe's 3G License Giveaway).

No one at Finland's Ministry of Transport and Communications was available when we called to ask for clarification (which is just as well, since none of us here speaks Finnish).

So is Hi3G sure the license is up for sale? Lilja says it has the green light from the Finnish watchdog, but there is a condition attached. "The regulator says we cannot buy the license alone, that the bid must be for the license and the current 3G operations." Which amounts to some test network in the Finnish capital of Helsinki.

Such a sale would leave Telia Mobile Finland still holding a GSM business and a public access WLAN operation (part of Telia's Homerun business) that it would need to sell. Isn't Hi3G interested in these?

In a word: No. Whampoa's 3G businesses have many things in common, one of which is that they don't carry 2G baggage. "The rationale for our bid is to extend the 3G blueprint we already have with the license in Denmark," says Lilja. "We can share costs and ideas and benefit from the economies of scale, and we want to take advantage of that."

So is there a timeframe for the bid to be accepted or rejected? "Yes, but that information is not public. We will issue a news release if Telia accepts our bid. Otherwise we won't," he adds cheerily. He did, however, confirm that this was a very good time to bid for 3G assets.

But it seems that Hi3G is not the only company interested in buying while the market is depressed. When Unstrung called Telia to request details of current negotiations, a spokeswoman for the Swedish carrier declared: "We can only state that we have had some bidders."

Bidders? So you have had more than one bid then? Silence.

Then, more silence. "No comment," comes the reply at last. "We are not disclosing any more information, only that the sales process is ongoing right now."

With Hutchison identifying the possibilities of regional synergies in Scandinavia that could keep some business away from a merged Telia/Sonera, Unstrung will keep its earmuffs to the ground for any similar movement from the Scandinavian telco left out in the cold by its affianced neighbors: Norway's Telenor ASA (Nasdaq: TELN), itself no stranger to the benefits of multiple mobile holdings (see Telenor Loves Its 'Cash Machine').

Meanwhile, Hutchison's 3G business in Italy, H3G, has made a €58 million offer for some sites from collapsed Italian mobile business Blu SpA, which is in the process of being asset stripped. The purchase will require EC approval.

— Ray Le Maistre, European Editor, Unstrung

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