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Tuesday, 7 March, 2000, 14:17 GMT
NTL's rapid growth
Cables being laid in the UK
Cable laying may yet prove to have been profitable
NTL, one the UK's leading cable television companies, is an American firm, based in the UK, whose backers include France Telecom and Microsoft.

But it is still probably best known for its attempt to buy Newcastle United last year.

Chief executive and driving force behind the firm is 43-year-old Barclay Knapp.

In the space of seven years the company has grown from a $25m start-up to be worth an estimated $12.5bn.

The once fragmented UK cable TV industry has been the subject of consolidation in the past few years, with NTL and Telewest now emerging as the big two.

But NTL - which has benefited from a $500m Microsoft investment - has always seemed to have bigger goals, with taking on satellite giant BSkyB seemingly among them.

Spread the net

While Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB was bidding for soccer giant Manchester United, NTL hit back by bidding for rival Newcastle United.

When BSkyB and terrestrial broadcaster Granada began buying 10% stakes in top football clubs, NTL followed suit.

The next phase of its growth came with the agreement to buy the third UK cable firm Cable & Wireless Communications for 8bn last summer, a deal that was complete at the end of May.

The task of persuading the millions of homes in its enlarged area to take its cable TV and phone packages, is one of the reasons for the launch of its unmetered internet service.

There is no charge but it does depend on users signing up for its telephone services.

But to become a truly giant player NTL also needs to spread its net beyond those streets which have its cables laid.

Broadcast towers

That is why the new offer is also aimed at anyone in the UK, with a gadget to be plugged into phone sockets to allow NTL's phone service to operate along BT's traditional phone lines.

Away from the consumer, NTL, in its former guise as Cabletel, acquired the privatised national transmission business for the former Independent Broadcasting Authority.

This means that NTL is responsible for the pumping out of ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 TV pictures via 1,500 broadcast towers in the UK.

Mr Knapp and NTL chairman George Blumenthal started the business in the UK with $25m from the sale of their mobile phone business Cellular Communications to Airtouch for $2.8bn.

Since then they have succeeded in pushing up the proportion of homes taking its services by bundling the TV and phone services together and undercutting the main phone providers.

Mobile phones

With the advent of its unmetered internet access, the number of homes signing up to NTL is likely to grow further, encouraged by the money saving deal.

Mr Knapp believes that we have only scratched the surface of the internet age.

In one recent interview he compared current internet content to the early days of television, when much of the programming was just films of radio shows.

Whichever way the world is going, NTL appears keen to be at the heart of it.

Its unmetered internet access was unveiled on the same day it put in the highest bid for the biggest of the next generation mobile phone licences in the UK.

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