An Idea might be behind Telenor’s likely exit from India

  • Sunny Sen, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: May 12, 2016 23:39 IST
India’s telecom industry is going through a churn, and voice-driven Telenor is finding the going tough as the action shifts to high-speed data (Reuters file photo)

Aditya Birla Group’s telecom arm Idea Cellular is learned to be in talks for a likely buyout of Norwegian telecom giant Telenor’s fully-owned India business.

Sources said the CEOs of the two companies have met.

Telenor recently wrote off Rs 1,879 crore as impairment — meaning that some of the investments it made in India will never see return-on-investment.

“We are in India to make money... If we cannot see that return through either an auction, participation in an auction, or through a spectrum trading deal, we need to look at alternatives,” Sigve Brekke, CEO of Telenor Group, said on an analyst call.

Early this year, Idea Cellular CEO Himanshu Kapania went to Oslo to meet Brekke. Sources said Brekke had suggested that Idea split the company in two verticals — premium and mass market.

E-mails to two Idea officials remained unanswered. Kapania did not answer calls.

As the India head, Brekke steered the company through many ups and down, including the downsizing of operations, problem with its joint venture partner Unitech Wireless, and turned it cash flow positive in 2013, with just six circles in hand.

Telenor’s write-off and recent comments comes as a surprise as Brekke always maintained that the India operation were healthy, it was enough to be a regional player and 2G-only play has a lot of opportunities. But, Telenor is up against pan-India players like Airtel, Vodafone and Idea, and the money making is slowly moving from voice to data.

“With the current spectrum portfolio we have, able to compete in the growing data market and we need to find a solution and pay a price that we can justify,” said Morten Karlsen Sørby, Telenor’s CFO on the call.

Things is said to have changed after former banker Gunn Wærsted joined as the new chairperson of Telenor. She wanted RoI. India was far from that. With 50 million subscribers and an average-revenue-per-user of nearly Rs 100, it was still half of Airtel’s ARPU, and a user base that’s a fifth of it.

But, Idea sees an opportunity. Telenor offers voice services on the 1800 Mega-hertz band. That’s a band which operators globally, and in India, too, are using to offer fourth-generation data service. Also, Telenor, valued at Rs 11-12,000 crore according to industry sources, is investing Rs 1,240 crore to upgrade its existing network.

Earlier, in 2015, sources said that Telenor was in talking to Airtel, but that deal fell through. If the Idea deal falls through, Telenor will be left with only two options – either buy spectrum through an auction, or exit India.

Read: Telenor posts huge operating loss, hints at India exit

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