Bottom line: China Telecom’s sale of several key entertainment assets to a separately run and listed unit reflects the company’s more dynamic nature compared with its 2 peers, as it tries to create services that can compete with private-sector rivals.
China Telecom (HKEx: 728; NYSE: CHA) is showing once more why it’s a telco to watch, with word that it’s formally spinning off 4 of the main entertainment businesses on its main E Surfing platform to one of its independently run and listed units. In this case the telco is spinning off the four to its fully-owned but separately managed Besttone Holdings (Shanghai: 600640) unit, in what looks like a bid to make these services more competitive with private sector rivals.
The bigger story is that China’s telecoms regulator is trying to breathe some life into the nation’s big 3 telcos, though each is responding differently to that call. Dominant player China Mobile (HKEx: 941; NYSE: CHL) seems to think it’s doing just fine as it is, and isn’t in any rush to try new things.
Perpetual laggard China Unicom (HKEx: 763; NYSE: CHU) has been selected to participate in an official Beijing pilot program that will bring in private investors to the company on a limited basis. But the company is being quite slow and cautious in its approach, despite big enthusiasm from China’s big 3 Internet companies to be chosen as partners. I expect any deals it reaches will ultimately get mired in Unicom’s endless bureaucracy.
That brings us back to China Telecom, which is emerging as the most dynamic of China’s big 3 telcos, as reflected by this move that appears to be its own initiative rather than state-ordered. Under the deal, the company’s Besttone unit will take over 4 of the main content units on E Surfing, China Telecom’s main division providing such services on its platform. (Chinese article)
Besttone will pay nearly 4 billion yuan ($570 million) for the four units, which cover everything from E Surfing’s video service, to its online printed literature and animated entertainment. The move will make the 4 services the first to be independently operated on a China Telecom platform.
The report points out that all four of the services previously had outside strategic investors, owning anywhere from 20-35 percent of each unit. But it appears that each of those is being forced to sell its stake to Besttone, which is taking over full ownership of all 4, according to the reports.
Thus this particular move isn’t quite as revolutionary as it might look, since each of the units previously did have an outside state-owned media partner that was probably the main content provider for its service. But in simplifying these units into a single separate company like Besttone, China Telecom certainly seems to be taking a necessary step towards trying to make E Surfing a more serious and dynamic business.
All four units are now profitable, though just barely. Only one posted a profit of more than 10 million yuan in its latest quarter, which equates to a paltry $1.4 million and is inconsequential to a big company like China Telecom. By comparison, hundreds of private-sector app makers are probably soaking up far larger sums of money from China Telecom subscribers with better run and operated rival services.
I’ve previously said that China Telecom looks like the most dynamic of China’s 3 big telcos, as it seems the most focused on trying to leverage its platform to build up a big 4G user base and provide its own compelling products and services. Investors seem less convinced, giving China Telecom a price-to-earning ratio of 12, similar to China Mobile and well below Unicom’s sector-leading multiple of 17.
Unicom is really the least dynamic of this trio, but I suspect its high multiple includes big hopes for a turnaround after it sells some of its assets to private sector partners in the pilot program. Meantime, I personally would still pin my longer-term hopes on China Telecom for taking matters into its own hands and trying to become more dynamic on its own without prodding from Beijing.