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Vodafone and Liberty Global are looking to redraw their European spheres of interest, with the mobile carrier saying it wants to buy competing assets in the region as cable pioneer John Malone retrenches.

John Malone

Vodafone didn’t disclose the specific markets but said the talks concern continental Europe, ruling out the UK where both companies are headquartered.

The companies’ operations overlap in Ireland, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania.

Germany is by far the biggest continental market where they are both major broadband providers, and Vodafone is the second-biggest mobile operator there after Deutsche Telekom.

The talks could have implications for Deutsche Telekom, which has also been expanding through acquisitions. Liberty Global in December agreed to sell its Austrian business to Deutsche Telekom for 1.9bn.

John Malone’s Liberty Global is best known in the Republic and the North as the owner of cable and broadband and mobile phone provider Virgin Media, as well as the cluster of TV stations under the TV3 name, which are to be rebranded as Virgin Media Television.

Liberty Global and Vodafone jointly run their operations in the Netherlands.

Discussions are at an early stage and there is no certainty they will lead to a deal, Vodafone said in a statement. Vodafone said the companies aren’t talking about an outright combination.

Liberty Global shares jumped as much as 6.8% on news the companies were in talks about asset swaps. Vodafone rose as much as 4.4%. A deal would follow other investments by chief executive Vittorio Colao in fixed networks, to offer customers more services as data use surges.

Mr Colao said last March that the company would consider expanding its alliance with Mr Malone once their Dutch venture, started in late 2016, was proven a success.

The companies have held off-and-on discussions for years, though both sides have played down chances of a full merger. “It would almost be a surprise if we heard there weren’t talks,” said Kester Mann, an analyst at CCS Insight.

One obstacle to a broader deal has been valuation. In the past year, Vodafone has gained 14% in London trade, giving it a market value of £58.6bn (70bn), while Liberty Global’s US-traded stock is up 6.1%, with a value of 24.5bn.

Bloomberg, Irish Examiner