Orange, the British mobile-phone network launched by Hutchison Whampoa in 1994, was yesterday sold for GBP31 billion (about HK$360.1 billion) to France Telecom. It is almost 57 per cent more than the GBP19.8 billion Mannesmann, the German telecommunications company, paid when it negotiated to buy the company, including the 44.5 per cent stake held by Hutchison in October. France Telecom, which already owns a stake in NTL, a British cable television and communications service, was yesterday being held up as an emerging force in the fast-growing European mobile market. The new company, to be called New Orange, brings together Orange's 6.7 million controlled customers with France Telecom's diverse mobile-phone businesses, creating a company with an expected 30 million controlled subscribers by the end of the year. France Telecom said 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the company would eventually be re-floated on the stock market in a deal which France Telecom said could value the company at 50 billion euros (about HK$363.94 billion) to 100 billion euros. Analysts yesterday said that, on the face of it, Hutchison could be accused of selling out too early and not generating a high enough return from its investment, particularly as it was about to embark on a capital-intensive third-generation universal mobile telecoms system in Britain. But many believed that Hutchison first accepting Mannesmann's offer for Orange triggered the bidding war which led to Vodafone AirTouch launching a hostile bid for Mannesmann, and the subsequent high valuations applied to Orange. Vodafone's eventual success led to the sale of Orange in order to appease regulatory competition concerns. Furthermore Hutchison has enjoyed additional upside from the transaction because it not only held shares in Mannesmann directly after the sale of Orange, which subsequently rose while Vodafone was bidding for the company, but after the takeover had a 3.5 per cent stake in Vodafone, which also increased in value. Analysts say that in the six years since Orange was first launched, Hutchison has made a huge profit on its initial GBP700 million investment, although the company itself now believes that its latest Britain-based telecoms venture will prove even more profitable over a shorter time. It took a 90.1 per cent stake last month in the GBP4.38 billion third-generation mobile licence won by Canada's Telesystem International Wireless. Hutchison believes the venture, which intends to spend an additional GBP5 billion on developing a network to support the licence, will be profitable in five years. France Telecom said yesterday that it would pay a mixture of cash and shares for Orange, comprising GBP13.8 billion cash and GBP11.3 billion in France Telecom shares. France Telecom will also pay an additional GBP1.8 billion for Orange's net debt, and taking on the cost of the, as yet unpaid, GBP4.1 billion cost of Orange's recently won third-generation mobile licence in Britain. The success of Orange has largely been laid at the foresight of Orange chief executive Hans Snook, who anticipated early the growth in mobile telecommunications. He had threatened to leave the company if Vodafone had opted for a trade sale, but the proposed re-flotation of the company is expected to be enough to keep him. The French Government, which still retains a majority in France Telecom, the former state-owned monopoly, will as a result of the deal see its stake fall to 54 per cent from 61 per cent.