LONDON -- After a flurry of unsourced reports about
( NTLI) and stories that apparently misquote its executives, investors could be forgiven if they are confused as to what strategy the U.K. telco company is pursuing.
The latest speculation about the company started on Sunday when a newspaper quoted an unnamed source close to
as saying NTL was one of the contenders to buy the U.K. Internet service provider and portal. Electrical retailer
owns Freeserve and it has hired
to look into strategic possibilities for the portal.
NTL shares traded on the
were down 3 5/8, or 6.6%, at 58 3/8. Freeserve shares initially jumped on the news, but by the close had succumbed to a general fall in shares and closed down 14 pence, or 3.6%, at 375 ($1.49). Shares of the U.K. ISP traded in New York slipped 3/8, or 0.6%, to 58.
Under the terms of Freeserve's IPO, Dixons will be able to sell its majority stake in Freeserve in July. Other potential bidders for Freeserve reportedly include
( DT) ISP,
Unsurprisingly, NTL on Monday would neither confirm nor deny the story, but a spokeswoman for the company told
that "It's pretty obvious where this story came from; it was certainly not from NTL."
The Freeserve report follows an interview with NTL's chief executive Barclay Knapp in another Sunday newspaper earlier this month that suggested NTL had snubbed bids for both U.K. mobile phone company
and cable company
Knapp's comments, however, were a little more ambiguous; a bid for the mobile phone operator was "not aggressively on the agenda." The NTL spokeswoman said the company was "surprised" at the newspaper's treatment of the interview.
"Although I wasn't present at the interview, I feel
Knapp was misquoted," the spokeswoman said.
So what do we really know about NTL's strategy?
At a presentation to analysts last week in New York following its first-quarter results, NTL didn't make any major announcements but did elaborate on some of its strategic initiatives.
The company has now signed agreements with some 140 content partners for its multi-access portal
. This portal -- which is being designed for use with all current and future modes of accessing the Internet such as the PC, television and mobile phone -- will offer banking, shopping, travel, email, games and local information.
According to Steven Adshead, an analyst at
, NTL building a portal from scratch is consistent with the consultancy's view that with the advent of broadband either though ADSL or cable modem, "there will be a major shift in the content that can be provided over the Internet because the speed of broadband can deliver a much richer level of content than a regular portal currently offers."
The question then is, would NTL be willing to fork out over 4 billion pounds for Freeserve, which according to
, the European arm of Internet ratings agency
, is only the fourth favorite global domain among U.K. users, with a reach of 29.8%?
A possible bid for Orange aside, NTL told analysts that despite its early withdrawal from the U.K.'s auction for licenses to operate universal mobile telecommunication services, or third-generation services, the company still has ambitions to enter the wireless area.
NTL said it is looking to lease spectrum from other operators and market this under its own brand. NTL expects to roll out this service by the beginning of 2001 and is aiming for a 5%-10% share of the mobile market by 2005. The company alluded to the possibility of offering basic mobile services free as part of a bundled fixed-line, mobile and Internet package.
Another part of NTL's strategy is to develop its television content, most crucially sports and movies. Sports, or more specifically
English Premier League
soccer, is crucial to gaining customers. NTL already offers soccer to its cable customers by buying the coverage from
( BSY), which holds the exclusive rights to show the games. This, however, is expensive and in order to avoid unattractive prices NTL reduces its margins to a minimum. NTL, therefore, makes little money from what is regarded as a huge money-spinner.
BSkyB's exclusive contract for the rights to show the Premier League games is over and it is understood -- although again NTL would not confirm this -- that the cable company has joined in the battle against BSkyB and the terrestrial channel ITV to secure the new contract, which could fetch up to 2 billion pounds.
The new contract is much more complicated than the previous exclusive one awarded to BSkyB and will likely consist of a number of different packages, including the rights to broadcast matches over the Internet.
NTL is certainly pursuing a number of strategies in various exciting areas. The trouble is that these areas are highly competitive and expensive. With long-term debt at a hefty $6.4 billion, the fear is that NTL may find itself constantly in the position of being an also-ran and the subject of rumors instead of fact.