European cable giant Altice says it is exploring financial partnerships that would help to speed up the deployment of all-fiber networks, fueling speculation it may sell fiber assets in a bid to reduce its high level of debt.
The company's statement followed media reports that private equity firms have expressed interest in acquiring fiber assets from Altice, which operates fixed and mobile networks in France, through its SFR subsidiary, and owns Portugal Telecom.
"Altice has undertaken a strategic review of its fiber infrastructure to further accelerate its deployment and is exploring financial partnerships," said Altice in the statement published on its website. "No final decision with respect to any strategic transaction involving its fiber infrastructure has been taken, and it is yet uncertain that any such transaction will be concluded."
The reports and Altice statement buoyed the company's share price, which rose 1.8% in Amsterdam on Wednesday to close at about 2.38 ($2.74). Amid concern about its debt situation, Altice's share price has fallen from a high of 3.52 ($4.06) in late June.
The operator's second-quarter results presentation shows that net debts equaled about 31.9 billion ($36.8 billion) at the end of June, nearly six times the company's annual earnings (before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization).
Debts soared following a takeover binge when Altice was trying to establish itself as one of Europe's big players. Its US arm, which is now a separate entity, has also been expanding though takeover activity.
Earlier today, Bloomberg News said Altice had attracted bids from KKR, Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System and Macquarie Group for a stake in its French all-fiber venture. Citing people familiar with the matter, Bloomberg said those bids were for stakes of between 40% and 60% in the business and valued the fiber assets at 1.5-3 billion ($1.7-3.5 billion).
SFR competes against Orange, Iliad and Bouygues Telecom in France's broadband market. All four companies have been rolling out all-fiber networks that provide high-speed connections to business and residential properties but cost billions of euros to build.
Altice has already raised about 2.5 billion ($2.9 billion) by selling stakes in its mobile infrastructure businesses in France and Poland. Even if the entire amount went toward paying off debts, however, Altice's fiscal position would not significantly improve. (See Altice to Sell French, Portuguese Towers for 2.5B.)
Private equity firms have shown growing interest in telecom assets as a dependable, recurring source of revenues. Investment activity in the fiber sector has been fueled by the soaring usage of data services, as well as the emergence of higher-speed mobile technologies that use fiber lines for "backhaul" -- the connections between basestations and core network systems.
Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading