French telecoms tycoon buys Swiss Orange for CHF 2.8bn

Switzerland's third-placed mobile operator has changed hands once again.

Although the name will stay the same, ownership of Orange Switzerland is changing hands once again. The Swiss carrier was acquired today by French telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel, through his private holding company NJJ Capital.

Neil is paying a total of CHF 2.8bn (€2.3bn) for Switzerland's third biggest mobile operator. It's a good deal for existing owner, Matterhorn Mobile, which is owned by funds advised by London-based Apax Partners. It paid CHF 1.83bn when it bought the telecoms operator just under three years ago.

Niel, ranked 152 in Forbes magazine's billionaires list, is promising to be a long-term strategic investor. He wants to share best practice from his existing telecoms operations while being mindful of the "Swiss environment and customs".

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Recently, Niel has been making waves by causing a price war in France with the launch of Free Mobile, a subsidiary of his majority-owned company Iliad, which bundled calls, texts, and mobile data at roughly half the price of services from France's other three networks. His strategy is to keep costs down and offer ultra cheap tariff plans.

In October his attempt to enter the US market was blocked when his bid for T-Mobile US was rejected.

His ambitions now seem to be focused on expanding his telecoms network among his neighbours in Europe, with the purchase of Monaco Telecom before heading for the Alps with the Orange Switzerland purchase.

Orange Switzerland has made a number of advances over the last three years.

It launched its 4G commercial services in 2013, which now reach 90 percent of the Swiss population, and has extended its store network with eight new outlets opening this year, including a flagship store in Zurich.

When Orange Switzerland entered the Swiss telecoms market in 1999, it was the third-placed mobile operator. That's where it remains, although it's closing the gap with a 20 percent market share compared with second-placed mobile operator Sunrise on 21 percent. Customer numbers have grown to just over 2.18 million this year.

While a price war might see Orange overtake Sunrise, both companies are still a long way behind the leading Swiss telecoms operator, Swisscom, which has a 59 percent share of the mobile market in terms of value.

The deal to buy Orange has to be agreed by Swiss regulators but is expected to conclude in the first quarter of 2015.

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