2021 has so far been quite an eventful year for the multi-play operator United Group.
However, for a company that has expanded so much recently, M&As have barely featured in the news. Indeed, the only major transactions it was involved in in the first four months of this year were in Bulgaria, where the competition authority approved the acquisition of Nova Broadcasting Group and its subsidiaries in January and more recently, in late April, that of the local TV and internet providers Net1 and ComNet by United Group’s subsidiary BTC (Vivacom).
Much of the focus has been on Serbia, where United Group remains involved in a long-running dispute with Telekom Srbija and, since earlier this year, Telenor Serbia. Telekom recently entered into an agreement with Telenor giving it access to its infrastructure, thereby allowing the PPF Group-owned company to offer cable services. While the two parties claim this will inject more competition into the marketplace, United Group says the agreement is ultimately aimed at expelling it from the country.
Most recently, Telenor has filed a lawsuit in Serbia accusing United Group of unfair competition and United Group an arbitration claim against the state of Serbia with the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) in Washington DC.
Furthermore, Serbia’s competition authority has approved the agreement without, argues United Group, considering documentary evidence of its real intention.
United Group has also found itself involved in a dispute in neighbouring Croatia, where A1 withdrew United Media’s channels, including the popular N1 TV and Sport Klub, from its offer at the end of March. In this instance there appears to be no political dimension like in Serbia and a resolution is more likely.
Away from controversial issues, United Group chose Nokia to support the rollout of its fibre-optic network and also entered into agreements giving its customers access to Pickbox TV and the music streaming service Tidal. It has also just announced the launch of a wholesale unit that will help expand its business.
Looking ahead to the rest of the year, the dispute in Serbia is unlikely to be resolved. If anything, it may intensify.
Given United Group’s ambitious strategy, we may also see more acquisitions across its South East European coverage area.
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