BCE Deal - How Do You Value a Telco?

The BCE privatization saga continues, and now the ball is back in BCE's court as they try to defend their valuation and trump KPMG's solvency opinion. There's a lot at stake here, and both sides are pulling out all the stops to get things to go their way. It's a bit like watching Detroit's auto execs going hat in hand to Washington for a bailout. If the deal falls apart, there are big time winners and losers, and a whole new environment for Canadian service providers.

I'm not following the minutiae of the story, but you can get a good taste of it here. It's high stakes accounting, banking and legalese, with lots of complexities around things like the criteria for determining solvency, the benchmark dates for making valuations, potential conflicts of interest for KPMG between BCE and the bankers, avoidance of paying break fees if the solvency test is the deal-killer, the impact of Canada's suddenly weak dollar, etc.

There are many angles and sub-stories here, and some will only be of local interest. In some ways BCE is better off remaining a public company, and long-standing shareholders will be happy because the huge drop in valuation this week only remains a paper loss. By staying public, BCE avoids taking on the $30+ billion in debt, which would severely restrict its ability to invest in network upgrades to remain competitive. If the deal dies, all bets are off, and BCE's competitors will have to expect a more aggressive posture from them. That in turn should keep the playing field a bit more level since BCE will be jumping back into the pool with both feet.

Not everyone out there will find the BCE story of interest, and that's fine. My main reason for posting about this is to draw attention to the challenges of valuing a telco, especially in tough economic times. I'm not an expert in business valuations, but it sure must be difficult to assess the value of the two primary assets of any telco - its subscribers and the network. BCE is a great case study since it's so public, and if I was a telco, I'd be watching this one closely. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see one or two major telcos/cablecos to falter in 2009, and they'll have the same issues to deal with. In today's world of IP communications it's much harder to place a value on the subscriber, and at some point, revenues from advertisers will be part of the mix, just like they are with the portal players like Google and Yahoo. I'm sure BCE will be a real test to determine just how well auditors can do their job in valuing service providers, and I guess we'll know once the final rulings are decided. Stay tuned.

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