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DoCoMo Seeks Euro Bride

Europe will be reduced to four main wireless operators following industry consolidation, believes the president of NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM), Keiji Tachikawa. And once the field has been reduced, he told the Financial Times, the Japanese giant wants to take an equity stake in one of the surviving quartet.

If DoCoMo is right, some pretty big operators are about to be swallowed up, as Tachikawa sees the market shrinking during the coming year. It is inconceivable that Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) will not be among the survivors, but it is possible that any of the others might not survive in their current states.

So, which companies are the other potential survivors? Well, Orange SA (London/Paris: OGE) is a major player, but as part of debt-laden incumbent France Telecom SA (NYSE: FTE), its future cannot be described as certain – though it does have very strong operators in two of its main territories, France and the U.K. But it seems that Tachikawa believes its parental issues have weakened Orange's hand, and that it may be subsumed.

He is more confident about the strength and potential longevity of Telecom Italia Mobile SpA (Milan: TIM) and Telefónica Móviles SA – operators with which Tachikawa says DoCoMo has been friendly for some time.

Then there's T-Mobile International AG. However, it seems unlikely that DoCoMo, which holds a 16 percent stake in U.S. carrier AT&T Wireless Services Inc. (NYSE: AWE), would make an equity investment in a vehicle of Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) – which, through it's T-Mobile USA (formerly VoiceStream) unit, competes with AT&T Wireless.

TeliaSonera AB (Nasdaq: TLSN) is an international European player, but it has retrenched from continental Europe to focus on Scandinavia and the Baltics, so it seems too peripheral for consideration.

Then there are the two pan-European carriers that seem ripe to be players in the consolidation game – mmO2 plc, which has operators in the U.K., Ireland, the Netherlands, and Germany, and KPN Mobile, with wireless carriers in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany (see Euro Shrinkage: The Netherlands and Getting It Together in Europe). In Unstrung's view, these two are unlikely to the recipients of a Japanese cash injection unless they merge with one of the other major players. This is particularly the case with KPN Mobile – DoCoMo already has a small stake in the Dutch operator, and it recently turned down the chance to maintain the size of that holding as KPN restructures its mobile business's finances (see DoCoMo's Purse Stays Shut and DoCoMo Cold-Shoulders KPN).

The real rank outsider is the collection of 3G operators in which Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. (Hong Kong: 0013) has majority holdings. DoCoMo already has a 20 percent stake in Hutchison 3G UK Ltd., though this stake was written down in October (see DoCoMo Takes a $4.7B Hit). The other Hutchison 3G operators are in Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, and Sweden, though none have yet launched commercial services.

— Ray Le Maistre, European Editor, Unstrung
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