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Li tightens grip on Hong Kong mobile as Telstra bows out

A man uses his mobile phone in front of a Telstra logo in central Sydney August 13, 2009. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz
A man uses his mobile phone in front of a Telstra logo in central Sydney August 13, 2009. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz

By Jane Wardell and Michael Flaherty

SYDNEY/HONG KONG (Reuters) - Australia's Telstra Corp. has agreed to sell its Hong Kong mobile phone business to a company controlled by billionaire Richard Li in a deal worth $2.4 billion that boosts the scion's share of the city's saturated mobile phone market.

Australia's biggest phone company said in a filing that it had agreed to sell its 76.4 percent stake in its CSL New World to HKT <6823.HK>, a listed arm of Li's PCCW Ltd <0008.HK> media conglomerate, for A$2 billion ($1.8 billion).

HKT will also buy the remaining stake in CSL held by Hong Kong-based New World Development Ltd., the property developer controlled by the family of billionaire Cheng Yu-tung, according to the filing.

The deal gives Telstra a cash war chest to pursue other assets as part of its Asia strategy, and strengthens Li's grip of the city's mobile phone market with the return of an asset he sold more than a decade ago. It also cuts the number of mobile carriers in the territory from five to four, easing competitive pressure.

The deal will give Li, the younger son of Asia's richest man, Li Ka-shing, about a third of the territory's mobile market, according to HKT.

Hong Kong has one of the highest mobile service subscription penetration rates in the world at 16.7 million subscribers, or about 2.3 per person, Hong Kong government figures show.

Smartphone penetration in the Asia-Pacific region is booming, according to Nielsen, with growth in a number of markets approaching saturation. The region has eclipsed penetration levels in the United States and many European nations, Nielsen said in a September report.

HKT is already Hong Kong's top telecoms company, which together with PCCW provides the city with its quadruple-play platform: fixed line, broadband internet, television and mobile. The deal to buy back CSL takes HKT from the smallest to the largest player in the Hong Kong mobile market by customers, according to Reuters Breakingviews.

PCCW shares jumped 6.62 percent to HK$3.38 in late trade, against a 0.3 dip on the main index. Telstra's shares closed 1.8 percent higher at A$5.20 in Sydney, while the main index was up 1.2 percent.

Other Hong Kong mobile operators also posted gains as investors bet that industry consolidation would ease pressure on prices in the battle for subscribers. SmarTone <0315.HK> was up 19.4 percent and Hutchison Telecommunications rose 11.4 percent.

The CSL deal is subject to regulatory approval and HKT said it saw no significant competition concerns. The company said that as part of its application to the Communications Authority it had offered pro-competition measures.

BUYBACK

Telstra's ownership of CSL came from striking two deals with PCCW for a total of $2.3 billion, the last one inked in 2002.

The Melbourne-based company bought 60 percent of CSL from PCCW for $1.7 billion in 2001, and the remaining 40 percent for $614 million the following year, according to PCCW filings.

But the purchase has not been smooth sailing for the Australian firm. In July 2010, Telstra said it would take an impairment charge of about A$170 million to the carrying value of its CSL subsidiary.

Telstra Chief Executive David Thodey said it was the right time to sell CSL, which has recorded compound annual revenue growth of 9.4 percent over the past three years. The sale was expected to generate a profit of around A$600 million, the company said.

"There are a number of dynamics in the Hong Kong mobiles market that means this is the right opportunity for Telstra to maximize our return on this successful asset," Thodey said in a statement.

Thodey said Asia remained an important part of Telstra's strategy and the company intended to be in the region for the long-term.

"It is interesting considering they're looking at an Asian-expansion story, to be selling out of their Hong Kong division, but the price and what they're getting for it does seem appealing," Evan Lucas, a market analyst at IG, said.

Lucas said it did raise questions about releasing an asset that was a good foothold into China, but on balance it is "a very nice pick-up and good for shareholders".

Telstra owns a controlling stake in Autohome Inc , the owner of Chinese car sales websites, that listed on the New York Stock Exchange earlier this month with a market value of around $3.2 billion.

(Additional reporting by Thuy Ong; Editing by Stephen Coates)

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