The consolidation wave impacting the European wireless industry has reached Italy, where mobile units of Hutchison and VimpelCom agreed last Friday to combine their operations into a 50-50 joint venture that will reduce the number of Italian wireless carriers from four to three.

Following in the wake of similar recent merger deals that have reduced the number of wireless competitors in Germany, Austria and Ireland, the proposed joint venture would combine the assets of Hutchison unit 3 Italia and VimpelCom’s Wind Telecomunicazioni, which rank respectively as the fourth- and third-largest mobile network operators in Italy. Described by VimpelCom CEO Jean-Yves Charlier as “a transformational merger,” the €21.8 billion (US$24 billion) transaction would create a potent rival against Italy’s two remaining wireless carriers, Telecom Italia (TI) and Vodafone Italy (VI), with command of more than 31 million customers, representing a one-third share of the Italian market. The deal also comes as Hong Kong-based Hutchison continues to pursue regulatory approval of its $15 billion agreement last March to acquire Telefonica’s O2 unit in the United Kingdom.