Xavier Niel: Leaving no stone unturned

It doesn't seem to matter how many knock-backs he receives: French billionaire and entrepreneur Xavier Niel always seems to bounce back with sufficient vigour to try his hand at yet another mobile venture.

Niel has already made enough of a mark in France by starting a mobile price war that almost brought the incumbent French operators to their knees. Indeed, SFR is now in the hands of fellow entrepreneur Patrick Drahi, while Bouygues Telecom continues to be wooed by all around it, with Orange the latest to put its name on the operator's dance card.

Iliad founder Niel has not rested on his laurels. He has already snapped up other operators in Europe, such as Orange Switzerland -- now Salt Mobile -- and Monaco Telecom. He is also behind Golan Telecom in Israel -- which is now being acquired by Cellcom Israel -- and has also invested in France-based music streaming company Deezer.

It was when Niel made his somewhat audacious offer for T-Mobile US -- causing the U.S. version of PC Magazine to ask: "Who the heck is Iliad?" -- that Niel's fame spread beyond Europe. That deal eventually came to nothing, but if nothing else it confirmed that Niel's ambitions were perhaps bigger than anyone had previously thought.

Since then, Niel has acquired options that would allow him to buy shares in Telecom Italia, and has already indicated he might like to play a more active role at the Italian operator.

The latest rumours to emerge this week are that he has also been exploring options to enter the UK market on the back of CK Hutchison's proposal to buy O2 UK and merge it with Three UK.

According to the Financial Times this week, Niel has already approached UK regulator Ofcom to express "preliminary" interest in entering the UK market. According to the FT report, Niel would be interested in acquiring the mobile infrastructure that Hutchison might be forced to sell in order to secure EU approval of the deal.

Niel has certainly trodden a similar path before: In 2014 Bouygues said it had reached an accord to sell its mobile network and some frequencies to Iliad if its offer to merge Bouygues Telecom with SFR were approved. That deal eventually came to nothing and Altice ultimately bought SFR. Undeterred, Niel has clearly been scoping out the rest of Europe since then, ready to pounce when the next opportunity arises.

However, how he would approach the UK market -- if the rumours are actually true -- remains to be seen. Unlike in France in 2012, the opportunity to disrupt with low prices does not exist to anything like the same extent in the already highly competitive UK market.--Anne

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