Batelco Ups Stake in India's S Tel

Bahrain Telecommunications Co. (Batelco) has increased its stake in Indian mobile newcomer S Tel Pvt. Ltd. from 36.9 percent to 42.7 percent with a $38.8 million investment, the Middle Eastern operator announced Sunday.

The deal is the latest phase of Batelco's investment in the GSM services startup, which will see it eventually hold a 49 percent stake in S Tel. The other investor in S Tel, with a 51 percent stake, is India's Sterling Group. (See IndiaWatch: Batelco Buys Into GSM Startup.)

In a statement to the Bahrain Stock Exchange, Batelco CEO Peter Kaliaropoulos reiterated S Tel's intention to launch its services during the fourth quarter of this year.

S Tel is licensed to offer mobile services in six rural "circles," or service areas -- Assam, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, North East, and Orissa. (See A Guide to India's Telecom Market.)

The operator is set to invest more than $400 million in the North East circle during the next three years, according to local media reports. (See IndiaWatch: Ramp-Ups & Roll-Outs.)

Batelco believes the opportunity for rapid uptake of S Tel's services is strong because of the large population (about 230 million people) and current sub-20 percent mobile penetration level across those six circles, where S Tel will be competing with the likes of Aircel Ltd. , Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL) , Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL), Reliance Communications Ltd. , Tata Teleservices Ltd. , and Vodafone India .

"S Tel has already benefited operationally by leveraging Batelco and the Sterling Group’s know-how," stated S Tel's CEO, Shamik Das.

Sterling owns Indian mobile tower-building firm Sterling Projects and Engineering Ltd. (SPEL) , which has built more than 6,000 mobile tower sites across India. Sterling is also a former shareholder in established Indian mobile operator Aircel. (See Maxis Snaps Up Aircel.)

"Together we will play a significant role in shaping the future Indian telecommunication landscape, especially in rural areas,” added Das.

Batelco's interest outside its home market in Bahrain doesn't stop at India: it already has operations in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

It's also looking to add to its international holdings: Batelco "plans to continue its regional expansion drive through targeted acquisitions of other operators and licences" in Africa, Asia/Pacific, and the Middle East, the carrier stated in its stock exchange announcement.

Batelco reported net income of nearly $70 million from revenues of $222 million for the first quarter of this year. (See Batelco Reports Q1.)

— Ray Le Maistre, International News Editor, Light Reading

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