The US company’s boss met EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss a possible bid.
US telecoms giant AT&T is courting European regulators as it accelerates work on a possible £60bn takeover bid for Vodafone.
Sky News has learnt that Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s chairman and chief executive, met the EU Telecoms Commissioner Neelie Kroes at the World Economic Forum in Davos to discuss his ambition to become a major player in the European market.
Insiders said that Mr Stephenson and Ms Kroes discussed a number of issues including the Commission’s receptiveness to a potential takeover bid for a major European operator such as Vodafone.
The AT&T boss is also said to have held talks with Joaquin Almunia, the EU Competition Commissioner, in recent days, although an insider at the US company denied that they had “met formally” in Davos.
A combination of AT&T and Vodafone, which has been speculated about for months, would create a global behemoth in the telecoms sector with a market value of well over £150bn.
The talks between Mr Stephenson and EU politicians come as Vodafone prepares to hand over a £54.3bn ($84bn) windfall to its shareholders from the sale of its stake in Verizon Wireless to Verizon Communications.
The majority of that sum will be in the form of Verizon stock and the remaining $24bn in cash.
Vodafone and Verizon will both hold shareholder meetings next Tuesday to approve the $130bn deal, which was the largest announced corporate transaction in the world last year.
AT&T has yet to make an approach to Vodafone but has begun discussing options for financing what would be one of the world’s biggest takeover deals in recent times.
City sources said that AT&T had been urged by some of its leading shareholders to delay an approach to Vodafone until after its US deal had closed.
Vodafone’s sale of its Verizon Wireless stake is scheduled to complete on February 21. The UK company’s shares will begin trading without the US mobile group’s asset priced into them three days later, with investors receiving cash and shares on March 4.
Vodafone is to offer a free dealing facility for holders of up to 50,000 of its shares to trade their new Verizon shares.
Coincidentally, Mr Stephenson and Vittorio Colao, Vodafone’s Italian chief executive, are both due to speak at the Mobile World Congress, a key industry conference, in Barcelona on February 24.
AT&T’s board has not formally approved an offer for Vodafone but the regulatory, financing and legal work being undertaken by the US company suggests that an approach is likely this year.
Mr Stephenson has spoken publicly of the ‘huge opportunity’ in Europe to exploit the growth of mobile broadband across the Continent.
A takeover of Vodafone would give AT&T instant scale in major European markets such as the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain and Turkey.
Even after the Verizon Wireless deal closes, analysts expect Vodafone to be valued by the stock market at more than £50bn and possibly as high as £70bn, preserving its status in the ranks of the UK’s ten biggest public companies.
Mr Colao has been examining strategic options for Vodafone’s post-Verizon future, and he has already spent more than £6bn on the German cable company Kabel Deutschland.
He has also outlined plans for a £6bn network investment programme to take place over the next three years.
Reports have suggested that AT&T could pursue EE, the UK mobile group, as an alternative option to expand in Europe if a pursuit of Vodafone does not pay off.
AT&T declined to comment on Mr Stephenson’s discussions with Commissioner Kroes, while Vodafone declined to comment.
Source : Sky News