Do better times lie ahead for India's beleaguered operators? The last few months have seen an unprecedented infusion of more than $18 billion in funds into the sector. That sounds positive in a market beset by competitive and regulatory challenges, not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic.
The most prominent investment has come from social media giant Facebook, which bought a 10% stake in Reliance Jio for about $5.7 billion. US private equity major Silver Lake has also made a $747 million investment in Jio. (See Facebook places huge bet on India with $5.7B Jio stake and After Facebook, Silver Lake invests $747M in India's Jio.)
But Jio is not the only operator that has received funding. Bharti Airtel also managed to raise 215 billion Indian rupees ($2.8 billion) through a combination of qualified institutional placement (QIP) and foreign currency convertible bonds (FCCB). Several global investors, including Warburg Pincus, Fidelity, BlackRock, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Barclays and JP Morgan, participated in the program, which Airtel called the largest ever dual-tranche equity and FCCB offering in the Asia-Pacific region.
Indian service providers are reeling under debt, and they will be using these funds to pay that off. Airtel has already cleared some of the payments it owed the government under the much-contested Adjusted Gross Revenue (AGR) ruling. It has also just signed a $1 billion deal with Nokia for telecom gear. Jio, meanwhile, hopes to clear its debt of around INR400 billion ($5.2 billion) and be debt-free by March 2021. (See India's Airtel awards massive network deal to Nokia.)
Apart from this, state-owned BSNL and MTNL has received a revival package of INR700 billion ($9.2 billion) from the government, allowing it to offer a voluntary retirement scheme to its employees. It has recently come up with a $1.4 billion tender for 4G network rollout. (See India's BSNL comes up with a tender for 4G network.)
Earlier this year, Vodafone Group also injected about INR15.3 billion ($201.18 million) into its Indian joint venture, Vodafone Idea. The company, however, will need much more than this to survive in India.
In total, some $18 billion appears to have been invested in Indian operators in the last five or six months. The infusion should aid network expansion and modernization, cheering vendors in line to receive contracts from Indian companies.
On one level, the investment activity shows long-term confidence in the Indian telecom industry. That is significant because of falling profitability. Only one telco, Jio, is currently profitable.
Despite the difficulties that others are experiencing, investors still realize India shows considerable promise. Even as data consumption rises, and broadband usage grows, nearly half the population remains unconnected. There is a lot of room for growth.
Moreover, the importance of robust telecom infrastructure has increased during the coronavirus pandemic. Communications networks have become the lifeline of national economies, e-learning and entertainment sectors. COVID-19 has also accelerated the digital transformation of the business sector, further driving up data consumption.
Several reports now suggest India could emerge from the pandemic more quickly than other countries. With the current anti-China sentiment, it might even become a manufacturing destination in future. For some investors, the long-term potential clearly outweighs the short-term pain.
— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading