The British government has confirmed another national security review, with an investigation into a French billionaire’s stake in telecoms giant BT.

The issue began in June last year, when BT confirmed to Silicon UK that a major French telecoms firm (Altice) had purchased a 12.1 percent stake in the former British telecoms incumbent.

The acquiring vehicle was Altice UK, which is wholly owned by Patrick Drahi – a French-Israeli telecoms billionaire, who is also the founder and head of Altice Europe, the second largest telecoms firm in France.

BT stake

Drahi has founded Altice back in 2001, and he is a prolific dealmaker, making a name for himself by snapping up cable and mobile companies in Europe and the United States.

The billionaire entrepreneur was born in Morocco but emigrated to France as a teenager. He has a net worth of $6.6 billion, according to Forbes.

Altice UK said a year ago when it acquired the BT stake, that it did not not intend to make a takeover of the British carrier.

BT meanwhile told Silicon UK last year that it “welcomed investors who recognize the long-term value of our business and the important role it plays in the UK.”

But then in December 2021 Altice UK acquired another 6 percent, raising its total BT stake from 12.1 percent to 18 percent.

The UK government at the time bluntly warned all parties involved that it was monitoring the situation. It stated it would intervene if necessary to protect BT, which has built most of the UK’s critical fibre network.

BT meanwhile reportedly bolstered its takeover defences in December by hiring boutique advisory group Robey Warshaw.

National Security

Fast forward five months, and the UK government has now officially confirmed a full national security assessment of Altice’s 6 percent stake increase.

“The acquisition by Altice of 6 percent of shares in BT has been called-in for a full national security assessment by Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng today (Thursday 26 May),” the government said.

The government said it has powers under the National Security and Investment Act 2021 to scrutinise and – if necessary – intervene in qualifying acquisitions on national security grounds.

The government has 30 working days (extendable by up to a further 45 working days) to carry out that assessment. That process is apparently underway.

BT, in a letter to shareholders, has reportedly said it plans to “fully cooperate” with the review.

Newport Wafer Fab

The UK national security investigation of Altice comes less than a day after a national security review began of the purchase of Newport Wafer Fab by Nexperia, which is owned by a Chinese chip firm Wingtech Technology.

The UK is also conducting other national security reviews.

In September 2021 the government ordered a national security review of the takeover of Swansea-based graphene maker Perpetuus Group by either Taurus International or Dr Zhongfu Zhou (who has business interests in China), or any enterprise associated with him or the company.

The government in November last year also ordered a full Phase two investigation of Nvidia’s attempted $40 billion (£31.2bn) purchase of ARM Holdings, amid strong signs the British government would block the deal on national security grounds.

Such was the pressure on Nvidia, that in February this year the GPU powerhouse confirmed it was terminating its takeover of ARM, much to the relief of the tech industry as a whole.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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