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April 24, 2014
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You can take your Sprint phone to other US carriers next year

HTC One for Sprint

If you’re with Sprint, you don’t have many options for unlocking your phone’s SIM card slot; if you can do it at all, you’re limited to service on foreign networks. You’ll have far more flexibility in the near future, though. The carrier has revealed that it will unlock devices for American use starting with those launched on or after February 11th, 2015. The move will let you use SIM-based features (such as LTE data) on ATT, T-Mobile and other US providers as long as your device supports the right frequencies. Sprint’s prepaid brands, including Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile, will also offer the added freedom.

The move isn’t a complete surprise when Sprint had committed to unlocking phones as part of the CTIA’s Consumer Code. Still, this is a big step toward having real choices among US carriers. If you’re unhappy with Sprint’s service next year, there’s a real chance that you’ll get to jump ship without having to ditch your handset at the same time.

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April 24, 2014
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World Cup rush leaves gaps in Brazil cell network

By Brad Haynes and Luciana Bruno

SAO PAULO/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Rio de Janeiro’s legendary Maracanã stadium was in a frenzy. Brazil had trounced the Spanish world champions. Yet 73,000 football fans could scarcely send a text message to celebrate.

The final of the 2013 Confederations Cup, a dress rehearsal for this year’s World Cup, was a promising 3-0 victory for Brazil’s national team but a bad omen for its cellphone network.

Despite costly investments and another year to prepare, phone companies are still struggling to provide adequate coverage of key sites for the tournament starting in June.

Several stadiums were delivered months late and work at major airports remains unfinished, forcing the telecoms industry to cut back and in some cases even cancel planned investments.

“Where we don’t have much time, we probably won’t be able to give complete coverage for the stadiums,” said Eduardo Levy, head of a Brazilian industry group tasked with preparing cellphone coverage at World Cup venues.

If the problems from last year recur, it may be hard for fans to make a phone call at a big game, let alone upload photos

or peruse social media.

Jerome Valcke, secretary general of soccer’s governing body FIFA, said recently he was deeply worried that in most cases communications for fans and media will not be fully tested before the tournament begins.

“We don’t want Brazil to be remembered as the worst World Cup of all time because the journalists could not get their stories out to the rest of the world,” Valcke said.

The risk of an embarrassing World Cup outage is just one consequence of an explosion in mobile data use outpacing the growth of Brazil’s cell network.

That pattern of soaring demand and stagnant investment has dogged much of Brazil’s economy, leading to logjams on major highways and airport tarmacs as well as phone networks.

Carriers already have a reputation in Brazil for spotty coverage and lousy service, making them one of the most resented industries judging by consumer complaints.

Chastened by the fallout from the Confederations Cup, the telecoms industry asked for 120 days to install and calibrate networks in six new stadiums delivered this year.

It got less than 70 days in the southern city of Curitiba and in Sao Paulo, which will host the World Cup’s prestigious opening match on June 12 and a semi-final in early July.

Teams of 100 technicians are now working day and night to set up stable coverage in the seating sections of those stadiums, but there will likely be dead spots in surrounding concourses, parking garages and temporary structures, Levy said in an interview.

“At the airports, our intention was to carry out exactly the same project designed for the stadiums,” he said. “But many airports won’t be ready in time. We’ll do external coverage.”

DEAD PHONES

Those airports are expected to bring some 600,000 smartphone-toting foreigners into a dozen Brazilian cities hosting World Cup matches. The concentration of such data-heavy users may put an unprecedented strain on local networks.

On the day of the Confederations Cup final last year, for example, data traffic from users in the host city of Rio surged to one third of the daily average for all of Brazil, according to Claro, the Brazilian mobile unit of America Movil.

The network at the Maracanã was so crowded that phone batteries quickly drained from the struggle to hold a signal, leaving some fans with dead phones by the end of the match.

Anxious to avoid a repeat, an industry consortium is investing 200 million reais ($90 million) to reinforce coverage at World Cup stadiums.

Carriers are also beefing up their fibre optic networks connecting host cities and adding antennas at major hotels, training centres and public venues. Telefonica Brasil alone is preparing 65 new cell towers at key World Cup sites.

Other phone companies, such as Grupo Oi, are expanding their Wi-Fi networks in popular public areas to help offload heavy data users from their cell networks.

FIFA has yet to approve carriers’ use of complementary Wi-Fi networks at stadiums, which could increase data capacity by as much as 50 percent.

Cellular phone networks worked well at the last World Cup in South Africa in 2010 and at the Winter Olympics in Sochi earlier this year.

To some extent, the World Cup has given Brazil a hard deadline for much-needed upgrades like America Movil’s new submarine cable from Brazil to Miami. But other capital spending will offer little long-term benefit, such as a next-generation mobile broadband at a stadium in Cuiaba, where the biggest soccer team usually plays to crowds of less than 2,000.

Telecoms firms are hoping to defray the costs with extra revenue from travellers during the month-long tournament. Phone companies have been signing roaming contracts with foreign carriers and making it easier for visitors to buy local plans.

Any one-time bump in revenue is unlikely to offset all the related investments, however, meaning more pressure on earnings. Profits have suffered over the past year due to weak sales and stiffer competition.

Still, companies are eager to show their best face to fans and avoid a high-profile black eye for the industry.

“The World Cup is a global showcase of the kind that a country only gets a few times, so it’s definitely the moment to roll out all the technology you can provide,” said Marco Di Costanzo, a senior executive at TIM Participações.

Brazil’s mobile phone market has more than doubled in six years to 272 million connections in a country of nearly 200 million people, but network investments have not kept up.

In 2012, regulators even suspended three providers from selling new mobile subscriptions in some states until they presented investment plans to strengthen their networks and cut down on dropped calls.

“The problems we are going to face in host cities during the World Cup are the ones we already have,” said Eduardo Tude, head of telecom consultancy Teleco.

(Editing by Todd Benson and Kieran Murray)

April 24, 2014
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Even At Record €8.4B, Numericable High Yield Bond Deal Still In Demand

The upsizing of Numericable’s six-tranche, cross-border offering to €8.4 billion, from €6.04 billion, comes amid strong demand for the paper. Indeed, demand would have been sufficient to print the notes at the end of last week, according to sources. The euro portion was upsized by €500 million, taking it to €3 billion over three tranches, while the dollar portion was lifted by €1.5 billion across its three tranches.

Proceeds, along with those from a now €2.84 billion term loan (reduced from €5.6 billion) and €4.7 billion rights issue, will be used to finance the cash consideration of Numericable’s purchase of SFR from Vivendi Vivendi (€13.5 billion), and to refinance debt (€2.53 billion). The refinancing represents the Ypso France senior facility agreement.

European investor feedback has been supportive of the transactions.

The purchase of SFR ensures some consolidation in a difficult French market, and is perceived to make a lot of sense for Numericable, according to buysiders in Europe. Numericable, a French cable operator, is buying the second-largest mobile telephone company in France, but perhaps more important is the fact that it is buying SFR’s comprehensive network, which will enable Numericable to expand its offering. The combined entity will be a market leader, according to sources.

The combined company will be the second-largest operator in the fixed broadband market, with a 25% market share. And there is plenty of room here for market share to grow, as France is relatively underpenetrated in the high-speed-broadband segment, with 10% of connections being high speed, versus an average of 24% in Western Europe, according to the preliminary offering memorandum.

The combined company will also be (1) the second-largest mobile operator in France, (2) one of two providers of premium pay-television services in France, (3) the only sizable incumbent in the French B2B market, with a 20% market share, and (4) the number-two player in the wholesale market.

Investors also comment that they believe the combined entity will be highly cash generative, enabling it to buy out minority shareholders moving forward as well as having plenty of dry powder with which to grow the business.

For reference, adjusted EBITDA for the year ended Dec. 31, 2013 would have been €3.4 billion for the combined company – or €3.8 billion including synergies – with capex of €1.9 billion.

Pro forma leverage, including synergies, is 3.1x, according to the preliminary offering memorandum. Accounts have commented that in their opinion, leverage is conservative.

Buyside participants also said they were very impressed with management, giving them confidence that the proposed €350 million of synergies and targets set will be met.

The ratings agencies have supportive views, too. Standard Poor’s affirmed Numericable’s B+ corporate credit rating and the rating on the secured notes and term loan. SP states that the transaction will result in a material improvement of Numericable’s business risk profile.

Moody’s, meanwhile, has put Numericable’s B1 corporate rating on review for upgrade. The secured notes and term loan have proposed ratings of Ba3. “Numericable Group’s post-transaction operational profile will become stronger, reflecting amongst other things the substantially increased scale and scope of the new entity and the strong industrial logic of the proposed business combination with significant cost savings potential,” Moody’s said.

A jumbo takeover like this does not come without risks, however. Some sources say the synergies and targets of the combined group are ambitious, and there is no guarantee they will be met. Moreover, the French market is not an easy one to operate in, with notable price pressures seen in recent years.

As for guidance, most comment that the notes are attractive, especially when compared to Liberty Global Liberty Global-owned companies. However, some sources say they would have liked to have seen a bit more yield given the large size of the transaction, while also noting that a comparison to Liberty Global is slightly unfair, as the new combined entity is much more of a telco asset than a cable company.

Nevertheless, for reference, Unitymedia KabelBW’s 2019 notes yield 2.7-3%. UPC’s outstanding 2020 notes yield in the region of 3.5-4%, with the company’s 2022 notes at 4.9% the 2023 notes at 5.5%. Unitymedia Hessen’s 2019 notes offer roughly 2.5%, and its 2023 notes 4-4.25%. Telenet’s 2022 notes offer 4.2%, while VTR Finance’s 2024 notes offer 6.3%.

In all, the combined bond/loan deal will easily be the largest single debt-raising exercise in the European leveraged markets to date, though Alliance Boots’ £9.02 billion buyout financing, from 2007, will remain the largest placed in a single market.

April 24, 2014
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Make sure you don’t miss out on the growing financial feelgood factor

After years of financial gloom there is finally good news to celebrate. Consumer confidence has hit a new high as we spend less on household essentials such as food, energy and fuel, according to research from Lloyds Bank.

Prices are falling across a range of items, while pay packets are finally rising faster than inflation. Here’s how best to turn this trend to your advantage.

WAGES UP, PRICE RISES SLOWING

If you’re feeling a bit better off, there’s a reason for that. Inflation, as measured by the consumer price index, has fallen six months on the run to hit a four-year low of 1.6 per cent in February. That’s great for pensioners on fixed incomes and workers with stagnant pay, who suffered when inflation hit 5.2 per cent in 2011.

Better still, pay rose by 1.7 per cent over the last year, which means wages are finally rising faster than prices.

There is also good news for tenants, with rent rises slowing. Rents rose just 0.9 per cent in the 12 months to March, according to figures from LSL Property Services.

HOME INSURANCE

The cost of insuring your buildings and contents has also fallen sharply. Premiums are down more than 20 per cent over the past three years, cutting the average cost of combined buildings and contents cover from £177 to just £142.

SAVINGS ACCOUNTS ARE BEATING INFLATION

Falling inflation will come as a great relief to savers, who will find it easier to get a real return on their money. Today, 159 savings accounts beat the inflation rate of 1.6 per cent, compared with just seven a year ago, says Charlotte Nelson at Moneyfacts.co.uk.

“This protects the value of your money in real terms, even though rates remain at an all-time low.”

You won’t beat inflation by leaving your money in easy access. The best account, HiSave from Indian-owned ICICI Bank, pays just 1.5 per cent. But you can if you’re prepared to lock your money away for a year or two.

Shawbrook Bank, for example, pays a 1.95 per cent fixed rate a year and 2.3 per cent over two years, based on a minimum £5,000. HiSave pays 2.7 per cent over three years. If you want your interest free of tax, Nationwide, TSB, Cheshire building society and Halifax all offer two-year fixed-rate Isas paying more than 2 per cent.

And there’s more good news. From July 1, you can save up to £15,000 a year into a cash Isa.

What savers really need is a rise in the base rate, Nelson says. “The signs are more positive that savers will eventually get decent returns.”

Alternatively, peer-to-peer sites such as Zopa and Ratesetter offer rates between 3 and 5 per cent today.

ENERGY BILLS ARE DOWN

After a winter of discontent, home energy bills are finally falling, with some suppliers launching tariffs below £1,000 a year, according to comparison site uSwitch.com.

First Utility’s iSave Fixed July 2015 (v20) plan is now the cheapest on the market at £994 a year. Ovo followed this by launching a £998 tariff.

More households are now willing to switch to smaller suppliers outside of the Big Six, says Tom Lyon, energy expert at uSwitch.com.

“As competition starts to heat up in the battle for customer hearts and minds, suppliers will have no choice but to offer superior service, lower prices and much better value for their customers.”

MORE 0 PER CENT CREDIT CARD RATES THAN EVER

Zero per cent starting rates last longer than ever now. Barclaycard offers a balance transfer card charging zero interest for a 31 months, says David Black, banking specialist at Consumer Intelligence. Tesco Clubcard and Halifax charge 0 per cent on transfers for 30 months, as does the MBNA Platinum card.

“The downside is the fee, typically 2.99 per cent of the transfer balance, but this is a price worth paying,” says Black.

You can get 0 per cent introductory rate deals on purchases, for shorter periods. Tesco Clubcard and the Santander 123 Credit Card both offer 0 per cent for 18 months.

The best deals are reserved for those with good credit records, Black says. “Otherwise you may be offered a card with a reduced 0 per cent term or even be rejected.”

This isn’t free money, so you need to be disciplined, Black says.

“Resist the temptation to go on a spree. You still have to pay at some point.”

CURRENT ACCOUNTS PAY UP TO 5 PER CENT

Traditionally, most current accounts paid a nominal interest rate of just 0.1 per cent. Today, you can get as much as 5 per cent, says Black.

“We’re in the amazing situation where some current accounts pay higher interest rates than savings accounts.”

Thanks to the new current account switching service, you can now move within seven days, along with all your direct debits and standard orders.

Before switching though, read the small print carefully. The Club Lloyds account offers a headline rate of 4 per cent but only if you pay in £1,500 a month and set up at least two direct debits.

Plus, you only get that 4 per cent of your balance if it is at least £4,000 and you don’t earn interest on your balance if it is above £5,000.

The Santander 123 account offers cashback on household spending, including 1 per cent on water bills and council tax, 2 per cent on energy, 3 per cent on your mobile, landline, broadband and pay TV. You must pay in £500 a month and have two direct debits. There is a £2 monthly fee.

Nationwide FlexDirect pays 5 per cent on balances up to £2,500 for one year, the TSB Classic Plus Current Account pays 5 per cent on £2,000. Again, there are restrictions. The best rates are available only on limited sums or for limited periods, Black says.

“If you get overdrawn it’s probably better to choose an account based on overdraft charges and not interest you earn when in credit.”

LIFE COVER IS CHEAPER

The cost of life cover is dropping sharply and competition between insurers has driven down premiums. Men have fared better than women, says Tom Baigrie at life insurance broker LifeSearch.

“In 2012, the EU banned insurers from charging men and women different premiums based on gender. Bad news for women, who typically live longer than men, and got cheaper life cover as a result.”

Premiums for term assurance, which is payable if you die during the policy’s term, are highly competitive. A 40-year-old would typically pay £11 a month for £100,000 cover over a 25-year term, while the average 55-year-old would pay £19 for the same cover over a 15-year term.

The younger you are when you set up your plan, the better.

“But if you took your policy out years ago, falling premiums mean you might be able to grab yourself a cheaper deal now by shopping around,” Baigrie says.

April 24, 2014
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AT&T, Chernin set sights on streaming video


NEW YORK (CNNMoney) –

Is ATT preparing a new challenger to Netflix and Hulu?

On Tuesday the wireless company said it had entered into a new venture with former News Corporation president Peter Chernin for “over-the-top video services.”

They’re not talking specifics yet. But they’re interested in the streaming video space to the tune of at least $500 million. That’s how much money ATT and Chernin’s media investment company, The Chernin Group, said they had initially committed to the venture.

With the $500 million, the companies will seek to invest in video-on-demand channels and streaming video services. These may be supported by advertising, like Google’s YouTube is, by subscription fees, like Netflix is, or by both, like Hulu is.

For ATT and Chernin, the unnamed venture is the continuation of a business relationship that blossomed last year, when they jointly tried to buy Hulu. While at the News Corporation, one of the companies that founded Hulu, Chernin was instrumental in the site’s early success.

Ultimately, the owners of Hulu decided not to sell the site.

The Chernin Group has a majority stake in a smaller streaming video site, called Crunchyroll, which is known primarily for providing access to anime shows. That stake is part of Chernin’s contribution to the new venture. ATT and Chernin may seek to nurture other niche video Web sites.

In a statement, Chernin said he was seeking to invest where the audience is flocking: “Consumers are increasingly viewing video content on their phones, tablets, computers, game consoles and connected TVs on mobile and broadband networks.”

Chernin and ATT both indicated that the venture would try to leverage the wireless company’s nationwide data network. Theoretically, ATT could promote new video products to its wireless customers and make it part of the existing monthly bill.

ATT’s chief competitor, Verizon Wireless, is also making aggressive moves in the streaming video arena. In January the company bought a cable-like streaming service that Intel built but never launched. Verizon hasn’t announced any specific plans to sell such a service to its customers.

Other companies are also pursuing similar ideas. Dish Network recently struck a deal to carry some of The Walt Disney Company’s cable channels, like ESPN, in an Internet cable bundle. But Dish hasn’t announced a launch date for that, yet.

Given ATT’s business relationships and Chernin’s history in the media business, the venture announced on Tuesday would almost certainly follow the same path as Netflix, Dish and others. That is to say, the venture would seek licensing deals for TV show episodes, not sidestep that process the way Aereo has by setting up an array of tiny antennas.

Aereo, a startup that streams local TV stations in some local markets and is being sued by the nation’s biggest broadcasters, was in the news on Tuesday because it faced off against the broadcasters at a Supreme Court hearing.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor actually mentioned ATT during the hearing; the venture with Chernin was announced publicly about an hour before the justices convened, so perhaps she’d just read a news story about it.

Sotomayor mentioned “ATT system, Netflix, Hulu, all of those systems” as examples of video streaming services.