The waiting game
Published: 08.04 Europe/London, June 16, 2011 by Chris Dziadul

When news that Liberty Global was to buy the Polish cable operator Aster first broke last December most people assumed the deal’s completion would be a formality.

However, six months on we’re still waiting for a ruling from the country’s Office of Competition and Consumer Protection (UOKiK) and the latest indications are that it is still some way off.

Should we be surprised by this delay? Well quite frankly no, as the acquisition, if approved, will have huge implications for the Polish market and may indeed impact on others in which Liberty Global has a presence.

Liberty, it has to be said, has come a long way since the depths of the global financial crisis and the shadow it cast on the European cable industry just two years ago. Its main focus has been on Germany, where it re-entered the market in November 2009 through the acquisition of Unitymedia and then strengthened its position this March by buying Kabel BW.

However, it has also started to perform exceptionally well in several other West European markets, while at the same time maintaining its leading role in almost all the CEE ones it is present in.

The one exception has been Romania, where specific market conditions have undoubtedly held back Liberty in its struggle with both RCS&RDS and Romtelecom. In due course, it may exit the country’s cable industry.

While Liberty is unlikely to be delaying its other plans whilst waiting on the verdict from the UOKiK, the Aster deal is certainly one it would like to close as soon as possible. By buying the operator, it would reinforce UPC Polska’s position as Poland’s leading provider of cable services, taking its subscriber total to around 1.4 million, or almost double the number claimed by Vectra, its nearest competitor.

Liberty would also strengthen its position in the lucrative Warsaw market, where both Vectra and Multimedia Polska have recently made inroads.

On the other hand, a negative ruling from the UOKiK would be a major blow to Liberty, though by no means the end of the world.

Irrespective if what happens, more cable deals are likely in Poland in the months to come as the market continues to consolidate, though perhaps at a slower pace than was previously expected.