India’s Bharti Airtel. Picture: REUTERS
India’s Bharti Airtel. Picture: REUTERS

Mumbai — Bharti Airtel surged the most in five months after it announced it had agreed to absorb Tata Group’s cellphone business in a "cash-free" transaction, shaking up one of the world’s most crowded wireless markets.

The stock advanced 7.8% to 431.60 rupees, the most since May 10, after India’s largest cellphone operator said it will get Tata Teleservices’s airwaves and 40-million customers in a "debt-free, cash-free" merger.

Tata will settle past liabilities to pave the way for Bharti, led by billionaire Sunil Bharti Mittal, to complete what it described as effectively a merger, according to a statement issued on Thursday. Tata will finalise the structure of the deal in the next five weeks, Tata Group chief financial officer Saurabh Agrawal said in an interview on Thursday.

"The consideration we’re getting is that instead of closing down the business, we are taking care of every stakeholder," said Agrawal at Tata’s Mumbai headquarters. "Frankly, this business should have been restructured a long time back. We lost the industry position a while ago and never recovered."

The world’s second-biggest cell phone market has long been ripe for an overhaul with almost a dozen carriers vying for customers with some of the lowest tariffs on the planet. Then Reliance Jio Infocomm, controlled by India’s richest man, roiled the industry by jumping into the fray last year with free calls for life and free data for a limited period.

Bharti said it will assume some small liabilities related to spectrum. Tata will retain its stake in Viom Networks, a tower company, and the group is exploring merging its enterprise business with Tata Communications, according to the statement. Parent company Tata Sons will repay all the debt that Tata Teleservices has, Agrawal said.

Tata Teleservices was ranked ninth among India’s 11 carriers, with a market share of 3.55% as of July, according to the latest data from the nation’s telecom regulator. The top three carriers — Bharti, Vodafone India and Idea Cellular — control almost 60% of the market. Jio now has about 11% of the market, ranking it fourth.

Jio’s entry into the market sparked the latest shake-out. In March, Vodafone and Idea announced they would merge operations in India to create the nation’s largest carrier. In February, Telenor said it would sell its India unit to current market leader Bharti. Reliance Communications had planned to merge with Aircel, but that deal fell apart in early October.

But, the industry overhaul may be far from over. "The telecom sector is undergoing a very turbulent and difficult phase," billionaire Kumar Mangalam Birla, the patriarch of the group that controls Idea, said in an interview this week. "Probably the fittest three will survive."

The promise of more than a billion customers led Indian companies to flood the wireless industry but as growth slowed, their debt-fueled expansion began catching up with them. As of March 31, Indian wireless operators had a combined debt of about 4.6 trillion rupees, largely because of aggressive bids for airwaves, according to credit assessor ICRA.

For Tata, its cellphone business has been a long-running headache. Until its resolution earlier this year, the unit was the subject of a years-long dispute between Tata Sons and former Japanese partner NTT Docomo. That feud contributed to founding family scion Ratan Tata ousting Cyrus Mistry as group chairman late last year.

"We’ll take the near-term pain. To gulp down the poison. Finish it off and resolve it," said Agrawal. "We are triple A. We act as triple A and we will always be triple A," referring to Tata Sons’ credit rating.


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