LONDON (CNNfn) - France Telecom is closing in on a bid for Orange, the U.K.'s third-largest cellular phone operator, according to a report published Wednesday.|
The French firm has hired three investment banks to support its possible acquisition of Orange, which will be sold by owner Mannesmann following the German firm's takeover by British mobile-phone giant Vodafone AirTouch.
France Telecom chairman Michel Bon said in February that the company would bid "aggressively" for Orange to boost the French firm's coverage of the four largest European cellular markets. France Telecom lost out in the bidding for Germany's E-Plus network last year, but has a stake in Italian operator Wind in partnership with Deutsche Telekom (FDTE), and operates France's largest mobile network.
The Financial Times reported that France Telecom had hired the Rothschild Group, Credit Suisse First Boston and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter to advise it on a possible bid for Orange.
France Telecom declined to comment on the report. Last week, though, it raised a 5 billion ($4.8 billion) bond, which analysts believe could be used to part-fund an offer for Orange.
Vodafone (VOD) is expected to sell Orange once its acquisition of Mannesmann is approved by European regulators. Vodafone operates Britain's largest mobile network.
Mannesmann purchased Orange last year for around $32 billion. Although analysts have described that as a high price, they say the price tag may now be higher still because of Orange's rapid growth in recent months, which has lifted its subscriber base above 3 million.
France Telecom (PFTE) shares were 2.1 percent higher at 265.10 in mid-morning trade.