Vodafone is ready for its closeup

February 10, 2014: 8:19 AM ET

Soon to be untethered from Verizon, the telecom giant will be making headlines.

FORTUNE -- Don't know much about Vodafone (VOD), the U.K.-based wireless carrier? That's all about to change.

The company is poised to complete the sale of its 45% stake in Verizon Wireless to New York-based Verizon Communications (VZ) for $130 billion. Once the transaction is complete, Vodafone will embark on a series of strategic and financial moves that are sure to raise the company's profile around the world, and especially in the U.S.

Ever since Vodafone contributed its U.S. wireless assets to the Verizon Wireless joint venture in 2000, Vodafone has remained virtually anonymous, by design, to U.S. consumers and even many retail investors. Likewise, Verizon wasn't exactly trumpeting its accomplishments on the other side of the pond.

The mutually agreed upon exile appears to be over. Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao, a former investment banker and management consultant, is meeting with U.S. media Monday to, among other things, outline some of the moves Vodafone will make once its alliance with Verizon concludes.

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For starters the carrier will return more than $80 billion of the proceeds of the sale back to shareholders through a mixture of cash and Verizon stock. It also has announced an ambitious $11 billion-plus capital expenditure program, Project Spring, aimed not only at bolstering its core European wireless facilities, but also on wireless services in Asia and wireline broadband networks.

Telecom-equipment vendors such as Ericsson (ERIC), Alcatel-Lucent (ALU), and Huawei are hungrily eyeing Vodafone's capex budget. At the end of last year Reuters quoted Ericsson's chief financial officer as saying Project Spring would make it "fun to be a vendor and an investor in Europe."

And Ericsson, which specializes in wireless infrastructure, won't be the only vendor basking in the glow of Vodafone's spending. At a time when its U.S. counterparts are looking to shed some of their wireline assets, Vodafone is pushing deeper into so-called fixed line businesses. It recently acquired German cable operator Kabel Deutschland, and CEO Colao has said he is interested in reaching consumers and businesses using a variety of "last mile" technologies, from 4G cellular networks and WiMax broadband wireless, to coaxial cable, fiber, and even copper leased from incumbent phone companies.

But even as Vodafone looks to expand into emerging markets and into new technologies, people close to the company say the telecom giant has no immediate plans to become a major player in the U.S. (Vodafone has not commented on reports that AT&T (T) remains potentially interested in buying it; Dallas-based AT&T issued a statement late last month, at the request of the U.K. Takeover Panel, confirming that "it does not intend to make an offer for Vodafone.")

For now, the company seems content to maintain a Silicon Valley innovation center -- and to meet with large American shareholders and key Wall Street analysts. But after decades in the U.S., albeit as a silent partner for the last 14 years, Vodafone eventually may be drawn back.

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Stephanie Mehta
Stephanie Mehta
Deputy Managing Editor , Fortune

Stephanie N. Mehta is the deputy managing editor at Fortune, overseeing technology coverage for Fortune. She also is a co-chair of the annual Brainstorm Tech conference, an annual gathering of tech and media thinkers. Previously, Mehta spent seven years as a tech writer at Fortune covering the telecom and media industries. She also has worked for the Wall Street Journal and the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va.

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