Orange CEO Stephane Richard (pictured) reportedly opened the door to partnerships with fellow operators to create a pan-European mobile towers play, as he urged rivals to be smarter with their infrastructure assets.

Speaking to Financial Times (FT), Richard said he was open minded about Orange’s tower business, which consists of 59,000 towers and is valued at around €10 billion.

At the end of 2019, Orange outlined plans to separate its tower assets in the bulk of its European operations into national units, before creating a company to house them.

However, Richard admitted it had been slow to act.

He believes separating out its tower business would help the operator decide its strategy going forward, while stating that pairing its towers, which are in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, with those of Deutsche Telekom or Vodafone Group represents an “interesting opportunity”.

The company plans to provide further details on its tower strategy when it releases its full year results in February 2021.

Cellnex sweeps up
Mobile towers have become a hot topic in the industry, as many operators have moved to sell their assets to specialist companies, led by Spain-headquartered Cellnex, as well as private equity funds, before leasing the space back.

Operators see this as a viable strategy to raise cash to fund investments in next-generations 5G networks and cut large debt.

Last week, Cellnex struck a deal to acquire CK Hutchison’s European tower assets in six countries for €10 billion, which followed similar deals with Arqiva in the UK, NOS in Portugal, Sunrise in Switzerland and France-based Iliad.

Cellnex expects to manage 103,000 towers and telecoms sites in total, should all its proposed deals go through.

Richard acknowledged Cellnex perhaps was valuing tower assets higher than telecoms operators, which was forcing the latter’s hand somewhat.

However, he added that “there is something smarter to do than just selling your towers to Cellnex”.

Tax break
Separately, Orange said it was set to recover €2.2 billion in tax, following a payment it made in 2013.

The French Supreme Court ruled in its favour, following a long running dispute relating to a tax bill it received in 2005 after integrating subsidiary Cogecom.

Orange said it will use the sum to reduce its net debt.