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In $130b buyout, Verizon bets big on wireless

The $130 billion transaction turns Vodaphone’s 45 percent stake in Verizon Wireless over to Verizon, while giving Vodaphone cash to improve its networks and explore acquisitions.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The $130 billion transaction turns Vodaphone’s 45 percent stake in Verizon Wireless over to Verizon, while giving Vodaphone cash to improve its networks and explore acquisitions.

NEW YORK — Verizon Communications agreed Monday to buy full control of its enormous wireless unit in a $130 billion deal, betting the US market for phone and broadband services will be lucrative for years to come. In buying out its longtime partner, Vodafone, of Britain, the telecom giant is also striking a takeover more than a decade in the making, taking advantage of receptive debt markets and its strong stock.

And Vodafone Group will be flush with cash to reinvest in its own businesses and to buy competitors in Europe and emerging markets.

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The roughly 100 million Verizon Wireless customers probably will not see any change in their services, at least at first. But the telecommunications industry is very much in flux as new competitors like SoftBank, of Japan, have entered the market, while new opportunities for wireless services have emerged. Verizon viewed gaining full control of its biggest business as essential to addressing those trends. In the most recent quarter, wireless services accounted for $20 billion of its nearly $30 billion in revenue.

Among its plans is bundling mobile broadband services with wired offerings like high-speed fiber-optic connections.

“There’s a big phase of growth in the US telecom market,” chief executive Lowell C. McAdam said. “The timing was perfect for us.”

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The deal is enormous, with the price nearly equaling Verizon’s entire market value. Verizon agreed to pay $58.9 billion in cash plus $60.2 billion worth of its shares to Vodafone, the latter of which will be distributed to Vodafone shareholders. Verizon will sell its minority stake in Vodafone’s Italian business for $3.5 billion, as part of a series of smaller transactions tied to the deal. The amount it is paying is merely for 45 percent of Verizon Wireless, implying the wireless unit is being valued at nearly $290 billion.

Vittorio Colao, CEO of Vodafone, said the deal offered good value for his shareholders.

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“It was a good move for both partners, and we were able to find the right price,” he said.

The deal comes at a critical time for the industry. The country’s wireless business has had a gradual slowdown in subscriber growth in the past few years; many people already have a cellphone. In the second quarter, the growth rate of the US wireless market was 2.2 percent — the first time below 2.5 percent, said Craig Moffett, an analyst for Moffett Research.

The carriers, including Verizon, have said newer devices like tablets would help improve growth. But Moffett said about 90 percent of the tablets people were buying connect only to Wi-Fi networks, not cellular service. For wireless carriers, other markets for potential growth include cars and home security systems. But it is unclear if those will provide much growth to the industry.

“The question is whether they are big enough to really move the needle,” Moffett said.

McAdam pointed to new data-hungry uses in sectors as disparate as health care and education. “I don’t think the wireless market is losing steam at all,” he said.

For Vodafone, the deal will provide a huge war chest that could help it reshape the European telecommunications industry, which has suffered lackluster earnings and growing international competition, leading regulators to push for carriers to invest in new high-speed data networks.

Executives had long discussed how to end the joint venture. Several options were floated over the years, McAdam said. But Vodafone hesitated about ending a lucrative partnership that paid it a multibillion-dollar dividend every year.

Still, progress appeared to emerge in the past three years. McAdam became Verizon’s CEO in 2010, forming what people briefed on the matter called a solid relationship with Colao.

About a year ago, McAdam said, he began seriously examining buying full control of Verizon Wireless. Both sides agreed status quo was not an option. The talks continued in fits and starts. Rumors — one was that Verizon and AT&T would team up to buy Vodafone, an idea never seriously considered — began to spread.

One big issue was making sure Verizon could afford the deal. Its bankers insisted the debt markets could support the sheer number of bonds expected to be issued. Verizon’s underwriters are expected to sell more than $40 billion worth of paper, making the company the biggest issuer of bonds around.

Verizon and its bankers also consulted ratings agencies, eager to preserve the company’s investment-grade credit rating.

The pieces fell into place in mid-July. McAdam agreed to meet Colao. “Things locked up in place like a Rubik’s Cube,” McAdam said.

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