British mobile services operator Vodafone Group and India’s Reliance Communications are the front-runners in a bidding war for Indian mobile services operator Hutchison Essar, according to sources close to the situation.
For Vodafone, the acquisition of Hutchison Essar would give the company a beachhead in India’s growing mobile communications market. India is adding more than 6 million new mobile users each month.
Vodafone quit the Indian market in 2003 when it sold its 20.76 percent stake in a small regional mobile services operator in the country, as it did not offer it a strong enough market position.
More recently, Vodafone has expressed interest in expanding in India. Last year it acquired 10 percent of Indian mobile services operator Bharti Tele-Ventures (BTVL), and even received clearance from the Indian government to buy up to 49 percent of the equity of BTVL’s holding company in Delhi, Bharti Enterprises.
Vodafone may find it hard to increase its stake in the services company, because the Bharti family, the majority owner in Bharti Enterprises, and Singapore Telecommunications (SingTel) of Singapore, which also holds a minority stake in the company, have not shown an inclination to sell their stake to Vodafone, according to informed sources.
Hutchison Essar in Mumbai is a joint venture between Hutchison Telecommunications International, a subsidiary of Hutchison Whampoa, and the Essar Group in India, in which Hutchison holds a majority stake. The company offers services under the brand “Hutch,” and it had more than 21 million mobile users as of Sept. 30, according to the Cellular Operators Association of India. It offers services using the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) standard.
Reliance, of Mumbai, is a large mobile services provider using the code division multiple access standard. It has recently shown interest in getting into the GSM market as well.
If its bid for Hutchison Essar sails through, Vodafone will not be able to hold the entire equity in the company, as current Indian rules allow up to 74 percent foreign holding in Indian mobile services companies. Vodafone will have to find an Indian partner to hold the balance 26 percent equity.
The boom in Indian mobile subscribers was achieved by fierce competition and falling tariffs. A number of mobile services companies have changed owners or merged as the industry moves toward consolidation, according to analysts.
-John Ribeiro, IDG News Service (Bangalore Bureau)
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