Orange SA is looking to invest in bitcoin startups in the coming months, making it one of the first big international phone carriers to become interested in the technology behind the digital currency.
“There’s something intriguing in this technology, so we want to be there as early as possible,” said Georges Nahon, chief executive officer of Orange Silicon Valley, a division of the Paris-based company. “This could be a digital platform of the future.”
While bitcoin’s price has almost dropped in half in the past year and the prospects of the digital currency are uncertain, its underlying software is attracting investors. The technology can be tweaked to record changes in ownership of any asset in a public ledger using a distributed network of computers, and could help facilitate transactions at businesses like carriers, banks, stock exchanges or insurance providers.
The bitcoin blockchain technology, as it is called, could be used to cheaply transfer money between different countries, Nahon said. Like other carriers, Orange is building up its mobile-payment business as more people use their smartphones to make purchases or transfers. Orange already has more than 12 million users for its money transfer service Orange Money in Africa and the Middle East, and is looking to expand the business.
Talking to Startups
Orange Silicon Valley has been holding bitcoin events at its offices in San Francisco and is talking to two bitcoin companies, Nahon said. The group can invest $20,000 per startup and is part of global team that can spend up to 3 million euros ($3.2 million) per company.
“Even though we have a large internal R&D organization, given the pace of innovation we need to compliment our own initiatives and projects with what the outside world is doing,” Nahon said.
Bitcoin venture-capital investments hit an all-time quarterly high of $233.95 million in the first quarter, according to researcher CB Insights.
Google Ventures and venture arms of several other large tech companies have made investments in bitcoin-related startups. Even the biggest U.S. stock exchange operators are taking steps to embrace bitcoin. This year Nasdaq OMX Group Inc. licensed its technology to a bitcoin trading company, while the New York Stock Exchange invested in bitcoin startup Coinbase.
While telecommunications companies have mostly stayed on the sidelines, several have begun to dabble in bitcoin. Perseus Telecom, which provides high-speed global connectivity services for traders, announced it would begin supporting bitcoin trading. Dish Network Corp. began accepting bitcoin payments last year.