Who's Waving Their Wad at Nortel’s MEN?
That number might seem high, but here at Light Reading we've managed to come up with even more possibilities than that (some a lot more likely than others, admittedly).
The interest is good news, because Nortel risks seeing MEN's value drop if it can't be sold quickly.
"They're not going to win business in this state of limbo. They can only go down," Heavy Reading analyst Sterling Perrin says. "I've spoken to operators, and they do want Nortel metro around, but when you don't know where the company's going to go, how can you buy from them?"
And there are already signs of decline in optical revenues (though that's hardly out of the ordinary in the current capex-constrained climate). In the first three months of this year, MEN generated revenues of $360 million (down 10 percent year on year) and an operating profit of $42 million (an improvement on a year earlier). (See Nortel Stays the Course, Declares Victory.)
Testament to the Nortel division's worth is its position in the emerging 40- and 100-Gbit/s markets. In 40 Gbit/s the MEN division has actually built a market-leading position, albeit in a small overall market, according to industry research, and it has secured a number of 100-Gbit/s trials. (See Nortel Claims 40G Lead, Verizon Adds Nortel to Its 100G Club, Banverket Picks Nortel 40/100G, Neos, Nortel Try 100G, SURFnet Lights Live 100G Path, and Europe's Hot 100G Action.)
And multiple buyers also means the price might hold up. "The only leverage they have is to play the offers off one another. They clearly can't get the $1 billion or $2 billion they wanted earlier," Perrin says.
So, who might the "Nortel Nine" be? Here's a list of possibilities. Some are strong. Some are longshots. We'll start with the consensus favorite.
Ericsson: "The one that always seemed to make sense to me is Ericsson," says Heavy Reading's Perrin. That's because the acquired Marconi business sells mostly to Europe, and Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) could use an optical foothold in North America. "And Ericsson is, to my mind, not far along with 100 Gbit/s."
Ericsson seems to be the frontrunner so far.
Ciena: Then again, some sources pick Ciena Corp. (NYSE: CIEN) as the most obvious bidder. "I think it would make them super strong," says analyst Edward Zabistky of ACI Research . "You'd be combining the two best metro players in this industry."
There are some drawbacks to a Ciena/MEN pairing, though. Perrin notes that Ciena is already strong in North America, so Nortel wouldn't increase Ciena's customer base the way it would with Ericsson. Ciena doesn't need much of the technology, either -- it already has the CN 4200, and it's already working on 100-Gbit/s technology of its own. (See Ciena Sending 100GE Live.)
Come to think of it, wouldn't all that overlap lead to antitrust concerns? "I don't think anybody would block it in this environment," Zabitsky says. "You'd just have to say two words to get it approved: 'Chinese competition.' "
Huawei: An early favorite, Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. reportedly took its shot but saw the idea shot down by AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ). (See Why Huawei Should Buy Nortel's MEN , Huawei Seen as Likely Nortel Suitor, and Nortel to Hold MEN.)
"The only company that will give them fair price is Huawei, and there's no way Huawei is going to win," Zabitsky says. "The Canadian government would just go crazy," because Nortel's gear sits in so many optical networks, in roles where the equipment could be used to intercept or divert traffic.
Private equity: It seems likely that private equity firms account for at least a couple of the nine candidates. This option wouldn't bode well for Nortel staffers, as private equity's game is to pare down a company's costs, especially those pesky employees. After that, the goal would be either an IPO or a sale to someone else on this list.
From this point on, we're getting deeper into speculation territory... but that's also a lot of fun!
Sycamore: Hey, Sycamore Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: SCMR) has cash ($714 million as of March) and they're not doing much these days anyway, right? (OK, we're exaggerating -- see Sycamore Adds OTN.) "That's not a bad one to put in there," Perrin says. "People forget they exist."
That's him off the Christmas card list, then... Tellabs: CEO Rob Pullen has been seen in the telecom gear mall with his bulging wallet. Rule out Tellabs Inc. (Nasdaq: TLAB; Frankfurt: BTLA) at your peril... (See Tellabs Goes Shopping .)
Nokia Siemens: True, Nokia Networks says it has no intention of buying more Nortel divisions, as it's already expecting to spend $650 million on wireless assets. (See NSN Picks at Nortel's Mobile Bones , Nortel's LTE Brain Drain, NSN: Is Verizon on the Horizon?, and How NSN Is Funding Its Nortel Bid.)
NSN can't rule out future negotiations, though, and we wouldn't want to, either, especially as the company just secured credit facilities of $2.8 billion. (See How NSN Is Funding Its Nortel Bid.)
Cisco: In listing potential buyers for anything, you might as well include Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), because you never know what they'll want. (See Cisco's Latest Buy: Flippin' Sweet.) MEN lacks the hipness of a Flip camera, but given the growing importance of packet-optical transport systems (P-OTS), some of Nortel's optical capabilities could be enticing.
And now on to the "if this happens I'll eat my hat" options...
Juniper: Unlike Cisco, Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR) doesn't have optical products. But it does have a partner in NSN, and yesterday's announcement -- saying NSN's DWDM gear would interoperate with Juniper's core routers -- suggests Juniper is not developing its own packet-optical box. (See NSN, Juniper Converge IP & Optical.)
That arrangement, along with the fact that Juniper has Ethernet capabilities of its own, makes a MEN purchase look unlikely.
Infinera: The company has said it wants to expand beyond long-haul optical transport into the metro space by developing its own metro system. (See Infinera's Metro Expansion and Metro Move for Infinera?) A MEN purchase be a faster route for Infinera Corp. (Nasdaq: INFN), but it wouldn't take advantage of the photonic integration that's been the company's raison d'être. This looks like a non-starter, but these are unusual times!
Alcatel-Lucent: This is a company that's in the habit of telling folk it's the No. 1 player in the optical market. Now, though, Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) has lost its No. 1 badge. (See Huawei Swipes Optical Market Share.)
Is that enough to send it into a bidding fray? Maybe not, but buying MEN wouldn't just restore the company's pride and give it some bragging rights, it would get decent technology, good people, and profitable revenues, too. That could be appealing to Ben Verwaayen and his transport team.
So there we have it folks -- who's your favorite? Or have we forgotten someone? Let us know on the message boards below.
— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, and Ray Le Maistre, International News Editor, Light Reading