Where next for Vodafone?

Industry commentators seem increasingly at odds over the future direction of Vodafone. The latest view from Merrill Lynch is that the company was considering the sale of its interests in China and France. Speculation that Vodafone was open to sell its majority stake in Vodafone Egypt has also been confirmed following an informal approach from Telecom Egypt.

These revelations need to be balanced by the fact that during the last 12 months the company increased its stake in Vodacom in Africa from 50 per cent to 65 per cent, and also acquired Vodafone Qatar and merged its Australian assets with Hutchison into a joint venture.

So, is the company about to reverse its long-held ambitions of rapid expansion, or are these moves an indication of a new phase for the company?

According to financial analysts at MorningStar, Vodafone has quietly moved away from wanting to build the largest customer base worldwide, and is now pursuing a route of searching for growth in selected regions.

This is seen in Europe where the company now has an integrated network covering many countries, and is busy coaxing Verizon Wireless towards adopting a more worldly approach to working with its European subsidiaries.

However, MorningStar disagrees with Merrill Lynch, believing that Vodafone will push forward with attempts to gain control of the companies in which it is a minority shareholder - such as in France, Italy and Egypt.

Without question Vodafone has a sprawling empire with majority or joint control in 23 countries and minority or partnership interests in many others.

But has this scale become more of a burden than a benefit in today's financial climate?

The competition is increasing globally, European rivals are merging and emerging market operators are becoming significant players. Vodafone has also been hit with a US$2 billion tax bill by the Indian government for its acquisition of Hutchison Essar in 2007, and will be saddled with paying heavily for new spectrum in India and Germany.

Selling its shareholding in China Mobile would comfortably cover these outgoings, but the bigger question of what to do with its 45 per cent holding in Verizon Wireless (valued at between US$30 billion and US$40 billion) remains a point of fascination for industry watchers.

Solving these many conundrums will certainly keep Vodafone's management exceptionally busy --but whatever they decide will be damned by some and praised by others. -Paul