Xavier niel styles himself as a maverick. certainly, iliad has begun to stick out among listed peers. on monday, the french telecoms group announced plans to buy polands leading mobile operator play at an enterprise value of 3.5bn. m&a has frequently backfired for listed european telecoms groups. but with prices depressed, iliad and other acquirers have few qualms.

Mr niel, along with rival patrick drahi of altice europe, complain that public market investors underrate europes telecom operators, given they provide the backbone for online industries. last week, altice europe announced it would go private the latest in a series of transactions.

Valuations have fallen. a consistent run of m&a, with plenty of cost cutting, has not improved multiples. iliad is paying 2.2bn for the equity of play, another iconoclast. the enterprise value is equivalent to 6.5 times estimated ebitda, 14 per cent below iliads rating. that compares with european expansionist vodafone at about 5 times.

Iliad has agreed the purchase of a 40 per cent stake and will launch a tender offer for the rest of play at the same price of 39 zlotys (8.6) per share.

Mr niel unashamedly spends to grow the top line. he is paying a near-39 per cent premium for play over fridays close. no cost-cutting plan has been divulged, as yet. poland will become iliads third european market. buying play lifts iliad to sixth in europe with 34.7m subscribers there, still less than a third of vodafone.

After a tough period a few years back, iliad has rebounded smartly. not only has it stabilised in its home market of france, it has expanded its mobile subscriber share in italy from 0 to 8 per cent in two years.

Spains cellnex is another aggressive acquirer, albeit in infrastructure. no surprise that cellnex and iliad have outrun all their peers in the msci european telecom index this year. investors want more than just consolidation and cost-cutting. iliads odyssey has caught their imagination.

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