Liberty Global Eyes Latin America, Buys Puerto Rico’s Choice

Liberty’s global arm values massive broadband upside in Latin America

John Malone’s Liberty Global has teamed with investment funds affiliated with Searchlight Capital Partners to acquire 100% of the parent of Puerto Rico Cable Acquisition Company, Choice Cable TV, the second largest cable-broadband services provider in Puerto Rico.

Transaction values Choice, before transaction costs, at about $272.5 million, Liberty Global said Wednesday.

Purchase is Liberty Global’s latest in Latin America, where it operates in Puerto Rico and Chile.

But it most probably will not be its last. Asked at the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference Wednesday whether Latin America was “the next frontier” for Liberty Global, prexy-CEO Mike Fries answered that he “did think that there were opportunities in Latin America,” but, regarding potential investments, Liberty Global would “look more at markets than assets.”

In Puerto Rico, Liberty will merge Choice’s operations with Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico. Owned 60% by Liberty Global and 40% by Searchlight, the combined business will be the biggest on the island, Liberty Global said Wednesday. Choice had 154,000 clients as of Aug. 31, with 345,000 homes passed. Merged company will reach over 80% of Puerto Rican homes.

“It was a natural move for us to essentially have an island-wide network that we can drive greater growth and opportunity from,” Fries told the UBS Conference.

Liberty Global expects to fund its part of the acquisition via its new tracking share group, the Liberty Latin American and Caribbean Group (LiLAC), once the tracking share proposal has been approved by Liberty Global shareholders and completed.

Choice would be LiLAC’s first buy.

Liberty Global’s highest-profile recent moves have come in Western Europe: the creation this May of a joint venture with Discovery to acquire U.K.-based TV production group All3Media; the purchase last year of Virgin Media, the No. 1 British cable operator, for $24 billion; Liberty Global’s completion in early November of a tender offer for Ziggo, the Netherlands’ largest cabler. Some 85% of Global Liberty’s revenues currently come from its “Big Five” European territories: the U.K., Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland, Fries said at the UBS Conference, rebuffing rumors that Liberty Global might pull out of Germany. “Germany is a crown jewel for us,” he said.

Latin America offers a different risk/return ratio than Europe, he told the UBS audience. But LiLAC will position Liberty Global to “explore new opportunities in a region with massive broadband upside,” Fries said last month at an analysts conference call.

Liberty Global will not be going on a spending spree across the region, Fries cautioned Wednesday. “The idea of owning little assets in 20 countries isn’t very exciting to us. We’ve learnt that lesson. We’d prefer to own 20 assets in two countries. In those markets, we’ll run the gamut quite quickly.”

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