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MCI WorldCom confirms interest in UK firm

Chief executive Bernie Ebbers confirms that his company is considering a bid for British cell phone network operator Orange, which would help MCI break into that country's wireless market.

MCI WorldCom chief executive Bernie Ebbers confirmed today that his company is considering a bid for British cell phone network operator Orange, which would help MCI WorldCom break into that country's wireless market.

The company is looking for a plan B for entering the U.K. mobile phone business after withdrawing from a recent bidding war over new wireless licenses that proved too expensive for its tastes. Orange could provide that alternative path, executives said.

"We expect to investigate (Orange), as we would any other opportunity," Ebbers said on a conference call with analysts today. "We are curious at this point to see how that plays out."

The possible acquisition is just one alternative, Ebbers added. Because the winners in the recent wireless license auction paid so much money for the property, one of them might be looking for partners to help defray the cost. MCI WorldCom will also investigate that route, he said.

The company's interest in the market is just one facet of a desperate worldwide scramble for wireless licenses and footprints.

The speculation about a possible bid for Orange does follow a familiar MCI WorldCom pattern, however.

In its initial quest for a U.S. wireless strategy, Ebbers conducted a series of on-again, off-again negotiations with wireless phone company Nextel. Talks evaporated when the parties couldn't agree on a price in the mid-$40 range, although Nextel closed today at more than $112--down from a high of $165 last month.

MCI WorldCom also considered a bid on AirTouch Communications early last year, but withdrew after a price war erupted between Vodafone and Bell Atlantic.

The company ultimately bit the bullet on current market prices and agreed to buy Sprint, in what see story: MCI WorldCom buys Sprint was at the time the most expensive merger ever.

Orange, Britain's third-largest mobile phone company, is currently owned by Germany's Mannesmann. That company must spin it off or sell the firm in order to complete its merger with Vodafone. Analysts have said the company could fetch a price of $47 billion.

Several other communications giants are lining up for the property, portending another bidding war. France Telecom and Holland's KPN have said they are readying bids, while Spain's Telefonica and Japan's NTT DoCoMo are also rumored to be interested.