Singtel associate Bharti Airtel must pay $4b in dues after court ruling

Singtel associate Airtel said it was disappointed with the Supreme Court's decision and that it would evaluate filing another petition.
Singtel associate Airtel said it was disappointed with the Supreme Court's decision and that it would evaluate filing another petition.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - Mobile operators including Vodafone Idea and Singtel associate Bharti Airtel suffered a blow on Thursday (Jan 16), when the nation's Supreme Court rejected their appeal against an October verdict, requiring them to pay as much as US$13 billion (S$17.44 billion) for spectrum and license fees. The companies were counting on some relief, such as a reversal of the earlier order, reduced liabilities or even staggered payment.

Shares of Vodafone Idea tumbled as much as 39 per cent on Friday in Mumbai, the biggest intraday loss on record. The court's rebuff adds to the woes of the survivors of a brutal tariff war sparked by the 2016 entry of billionaire Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd, an upstart that disrupted the industry with free calls and cheap data. Both Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, with a combined net debt of about US$30 billion, reported record losses in the quarter through September.

"Experience in India suggests it is unwise to talk of uncertainties, but it is very hard to see how Vodafone Idea survives," analysts at New Street Research LLP wrote in a report. "A two-player outcome would therefore be by far the most likely outcome," which is positive for Bharti, they said.

While Bharti Airtel, run by tycoon Sunil Mittal, has managed to raise the US$3 billion (S$4 billion) it needs to pay from a sale of shares and convertible bonds, Vodafone Idea's billionaire Chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla has warned that the company may have to cease operations and file for insolvency if the government doesn't ease their burden.

India is open to discussing ways to help ease the payment of these dues by wireless carriers, according to a government official with knowledge of the matter. Stripping out interest from the dues or paying the amount in tranches are some ideas that the government can discuss, this official said.

Shares of Bharti Airtel climbed as much as 6.2 per cent on Friday in Mumbai at 12:25pm, while its perpetual, dollar-denominated bonds declined the most in two months.

The court on Thursday also rejected requests by telecom companies for rehearing the petition seeking relaxations on penalties sought by the government and deadline for the payment.

"We wonder how weaker operators like Vodafone Idea will make this payment, and not that Bharti Airtel is getting any respite as the amount has to be paid up," said Gaurang Shah, vice president at Geojit Financial Services Ltd. "It isn't easy to raise tariffs and retain customers. It remains to be seen how companies now respond to this decision because the court has twice spelled it out for them."

For two decades, the operators had challenged the way authorities calculated their annual adjusted gross revenue, a share of which is paid as license and spectrum fees. With the October ruling, the court upheld the government's method, while rejecting the companies' plea to exclude revenue from non-telecommunications businesses.

"We are evaluating filing a curative petition," Airtel said in a statement after the ruling, an option echoed by Vodafone Idea as well. "The industry continues to face severe financial stress and the outcome could further erode the viability of the sector as a whole."

 
 
 
 

The government had raised a total demand of around 920 billion rupees (US$13 billion) against all telecom operators, including defunct ones, according to filings in the court.

Last year, Vodafone Idea had raised 250 billion rupees from a rights issue.

"Vodafone may have some cash through rights issue but it won't be enough to meet the overall dues," said Rajiv Sharma, an analyst at Sbicap Securities. "If there's not enough relief, then it is going to be a matter of time before they shut down."

In the past decade, India has seen a consolidation in the telecommunications industry. Three non-state operators are left now, from about a dozen four years ago. While Vodafone's local unit announced its merger with Birla's Idea Cellular in 2017, Aircel and tycoon Anil Ambani's Reliance Communications slipped into bankruptcy last year. Others including Norway's Telenor group and UAE's Etisalat group exited the market.