Bharti Airtel to acquire Tata's Indian mobile business

Bharti Airtel will gain Tata's 40 million consumer mobile customers, its mobile broadband spectrum, and an indefeasible right to use part of its fibre network if the acquisition gains regulatory approval.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Indian telco Bharti Airtel has announced that it will acquire Tata Group's consumer mobile businesses TTSL and TTML after entering an agreement to merge the telcos into one service provider.

Once merged, Bharti Airtel will gain Tata's more than 40 million consumer mobile customers -- TTSL's mobile service operates across 17 circles, while TTML is across two circles, with the total representing the bulk of the Indian population -- as well as Tata's 178.5MHz of spectrum in the 850MHz, 1800MHz, and 2100MHz bands and an indefeasible right to use part of Tata's fibre network.

"This is a significant development towards further consolidation in the Indian mobile industry, and reinforces our commitment to lead India's digital revolution by offering world-class and affordable telecom services through a robust technology and solid spectrum portfolio," Bharti Airtel chair Sunil Bharti Mittal said.

"Tata customers will be able to enjoy India's widest and fastest voice and data network and bouquet of Airtel's best-in-class products and services."

The acquisition, which will occur on a cash- and debt-free basis aside from assuming part of Tata's unpaid spectrum liability, is subject to regulatory approvals, with TTML and TTSL to continue services as normal until the merger is complete.

It will also retain its stake in Viom, as well as the associated liabilities.

The boards of Airtel, Tata Sons, TTSL, and TTML have all approved the acquisition.

Tata said its employees will be "demerged" across two business lines: CMB and enterprise and fixed-line and broadband (EFL), as "optimal manpower planning will be moved accordingly". It is also looking into internal movements that would see its enterprise business combined with Tata Communications, and its retail fixed-line and broadband business combined with Tata Sky.

India's telco market has been subject to several consolidations of late, with network coverage mapping company OpenSignal calling it "one of the most complex mobile markets we have ever studied".

"Not only is the mobile market extremely large, but it's a highly distributed one; India is divided up into 22 telecom circles, with multiple operators licensed to operate in each. That makes it quite difficult to compare operators to one another on a national level, because not every operator is operating in every region," OpenSignal said.

"Through consolidation and acquisition, several operators have recently emerged as national or near-national providers, offering either voice or mobile broadband services in the large majority of India's circles."

OpenSignal in April ranked Airtel as India's fastest mobile network, offering average total download speeds of 6.15Mbps, in its first public report into the Indian telecommunications market.

Airtel topped both the 4G download speed and 3G download speed categories, at 11.53Mbps and 4.77Mbps, respectively, while Jio took home the 4G availability gong and Vodafone India won in the 4G latency and 3G latency categories.

OpenSignal drew on 1.3 billion measurements between December and February for the report, selecting only the mobile providers that met its nationwide criteria: 4G-only operator Reliance Jio, formed last year by oil and telco billionaire Mukesh Ambani; 3G-only providers Reliance Communications and state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) Mobile; and 3G and 4G services providers Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India, and Idea Cellular.

In terms of average 4G download speeds, Vodafone followed Airtel on 8.59Mbps; Idea on 8.34Mbps; and Jio on 3.92Mbps.

All four only began rolling out 4G services last year after a series of soft launches in 2015.

The category of 4G availability, calculated by measuring the proportion of time that each network's users have a 4G signal available to them, was topped by Jio. Its score of 91.57 percent availability put it well out ahead, trailed by Idea, with 59.49 percent availability; Vodafone, with 59.05 percent; and Airtel, with 54.72 percent.

According to a Deloitte report last year, the Indian mobile market is set to continue rising rapidly, with the number of mobile towers in India to double by 2020, growing from 400,000 to 1.2 million due to the high population.

Collocation is also tipped to increase, from 1.77 mobile operators per tower in 2014-15 to approximately 2.48 per tower by 2020, Deloitte predicted.

Industry regulator TRAI last year also recommended that the government should reduce the reserve price of its 700MHz spectrum band in order to ensure that India's cash-strapped companies can afford to purchase spectrum and install more towers to improve mobile coverage across the nation.

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