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What if Vodafone Idea dies?

What if Vodafone Idea dies?
Business9 min read
  • Vodafone Idea is currently going through turbulent times, with one of its promoters, Kumar Mangalam Birla, ready to give up his 27% stake to the government.
  • On the other hand, its British parent, Vodafone Plc., has refused to invest another penny in the beleaguered telco.
  • What then, will happen to the 270 million subscribers of Vodafone Idea, its creditors who have lent ₹1.75 lakh crore to the company, and the broader Indian telecom market?
  • We try to decipher this with two of the best telecom experts in the country, former Airtel CEO Sanjay Kapoor, and former telecom secretary, R Chandrashekhar.
Vodafone Idea’s dire situation continues to haunt the company, its subscribers and to an extent, the government.

Between Kumar Mangalam Birla stepping down as the non-executive chairman of the company, and offering 27% stake to the government, and the British parent Vodafone Plc., refusing the infusion of additional equity in Vodafone Idea, things are looking dire for the third largest telco in the country.

Simply put, it seems like a problem no one wants to solve – not the company’s promoters, not the government, and certainly not the courts. This has the potential to put over 270 million subscribers, and the company’s employees, in jeopardy.


The telco has already lost over 51 million subscribers since the beginning of 2020, while its rivals Airtel and Jio have together gained 83 million subscribers.

A government intervention seems to be in everyone’s interests. But since that seems far-fetched at the moment, Business Insider spoke to experts to understand what could happen if Vodafone Idea goes out of business.

What happens if Vodafone Idea dies?

This is one question that can have different answers depending on who you ask. The answers range from a duopoly to tariff hikes for subscribers, loss of revenue for the government and collateral damage to ancillary service providers.

A return to the 1990s duopoly

The death of Vodafone Idea will immediately lead to the Indian telecom market falling back to a duopoly, with Airtel and Reliance Jio sharing the subscriber market share amongst themselves.

A duopoly is a situation where two companies together own all or most of the market share. It can have the same impact as a monopoly if the two players collude on prices or output.

“We started with a duopoly. We introduced more people because we were not happy with what the two guys were doing and we are back to that,” explained Sanjay Kapoor, the former chief executive officer (CEO) of Bharti Airtel, in an exclusive interview with Business Insider.

To recap, the Indian telecom market went from being a monopoly run by the Department of Telecommunications to one with several players like Reliance Communications, Airtel, the erstwhile Hutch (which was later acquired by Vodafone), Idea, Tata Docomo, Virgin Mobile, Aircel, among others.

Today, the Indian telecom market is majorly divided amongst Reliance Jio, Airtel and Vodafone Idea, with government run BSNL and MTNL, and others being marginal players.


Vodafone Idea’s death could lead to sharper tariff hikes

In case Vodafone Idea dies, the cost of maintaining the telecom infrastructure will be divided between two companies instead of three, thereby leading to an increase in cost of operations.

This, Kapoor says, will be passed on to the customers.

“Having a duopoly means the consumers will end up paying a lot more, and that is not good for the kind of technological advancements that even the government wants to see in the country,” Kapoor explained, alluding to the forthcoming 5G spectrum auctions, which could be hampered in case there are only two operators left in the country.

Banks and ancillary service providers will suffer too

Vodafone Idea currently has an outstanding debt of ₹1.75 lakh crore. If its assets are not enough to repay the creditors, they will have to write down their loans to the company.

In case Vodafone Idea dies, the bankers and service providers will have to take a huge haircut, too, as opposed to a scenario where the telco is operational and manages to repay its debt.

Some of the banks with large exposure to Vodafone Idea include the likes of IDFC First Bank, Yes Bank and State Bank of India, among others.

Banks’ exposure to Vodafone Idea:

Bank

Amount

% of loan book

IDFC First Bank

₹3,240 crore

2.90%

Yes Bank

₹4,000 crore

2.40%

IndusInd Bank

₹3,500 crore

1.65%

Punjab National Bank

₹3,000 crore

0.44%

State Bank of India

₹11,000 crore

0.43%

ICICI Bank

₹1,700 crore

0.23%

Axis Bank

₹1,300 crore

0.21%

HDFC Bank

₹1,000 crore

0.09%


Source: Nomura

IDFC First has the highest risk given that its exposure to Vodafone Idea is the highest as a percentage of the bank’s loan book. However, some media reports suggest that the bank has already marked the debt to Vodafone Idea as ‘stressed’, and created a provision for 15% of the current outstanding debt.

However, even in the best case scenario, it might be reasonable to expect the banks will have to take a material haircut.

Ancillary service providers include telecom equipment manufacturers, tower infrastructure companies, companies providing infrastructure rollout and maintenance services, among others.

For instance, the fortunes of Indus Towers, one of India’s largest mobile tower installation companies, hinge greatly on the survival and operational capabilities of Vodafone Idea, apart from Airtel.

“Any deterioration in their [Vodafone Idea and Airtel] financial health due to increased competition or inability to raise further funds can affect their ability to pay for infrastructure services, which could adversely affect Indus’ revenues, cash flows and overall financial condition,” Indus said in its annual report for the financial year 2020-21.

Airtel, Reliance Jio not equipped to absorb 270 million subscribers

The immediate fallout of a Vodafone Idea demise will be the subscriber exodus – at rates, which could be magnitudes higher than the current one.

Vodafone Idea currently has over 270 million subscribers. Its death could overburden Airtel and Jio.

“It’s not possible. The infrastructure of Bharti Airtel is not equipped to take on another 270 million people overnight. And Jio cannot do that either because they are not even equipped to take on 2G and 3G customers,” explained R Chandrashekhar, former secretary, Telecom and information technology (IT), in an exclusive interview with Business Insider.

Saving Vodafone Idea – the impossible, the pragmatic and the Frankenstein’s monster

The impossible

In his SOS message to the government, Kumar Mangalam Birla highlighted three issues that need to be addressed in order to save the failing telco – clarity on adjusted gross revenue (AGR) dues, moratorium on spectrum payments, and a floor pricing regime above the cost of service.

Chandrashekhar explains that these requests are not viable. In the case of AGR dues, the Supreme Court order leaves the government with no flexibility. The moratorium on spectrum payments would require changing the terms agreed to by the operators, and offering support only to one telco is impossible.

Lastly, the floor pricing regime will require defining the cost of service, which could be different from one telco to the other.

Floor price refers to a minimum price for voice and data services, which means telecom operators will not be able to offer rates lower than the floor price.

This, Chandrashekhar says, makes it difficult for the government.

Which brings us to the last option – coming up with a creative solution that minimises the risk for all the stakeholders.

The pragmatic – keeping continuity for 270 million subscribers will need help from Airtel and Jio

While Airtel and Jio may not be equipped to take on 270 million subscribers of Vodafone Idea, the two telcos could come together as the interim caretakers for the subscribers, on Vodafone Idea’s existing infrastructure.

This will not only help maintain continuity of service for the 270 million users, it will also give Airtel and Jio the time to scale up their network infrastructure to take in the inevitable influx of subscribers.

The Frankenstein’s monster – BSNL + Vodafone Idea, or, BSNL over Vodafone Idea?

There are two other possibilities to consider, namely – the merger of the state-run BSNL with Vodafone Idea, or, choosing BSNL over Vodafone Idea.

In the first case, merging BSNL and Vodafone Idea might make it easy for subscribers in the short term, but the long-term implications might make the situation worse for both BSNL and Vodafone Idea.

“Converting Vodafone Idea into a government company, or merging it with a government company might probably be a remedy worse than the disease,” added Chandrashekhar.

While BSNL is a much leaner organisation now, it is still lagging behind private telecom players in terms of technology adoption, capabilities, and quality of service. It is being held back by a very limited rollout of 4G services. The stressed balance sheets of both Vodafone Idea and BSNL might also be another factor to avoid this marriage.

Then there’s the soft challenge of culture clash.

“Bringing together an Indian company, a global company culture and a public sector company’s culture together, and managing the fate of those 1 lakh public sector employees – who in the private sector has the wherewithal to do it?”, asked Kapoor.

Ultimately, solving the problems of Vodafone Idea requires more than just a good plan.

“It's a difficult problem at the outset, but the solution requires not only a brilliant plan or a design, but it requires a taker,” said Chandrashekhar.

SEE ALSO:

Birla is reportedly ready to give Vodafone Idea to the Indian government

Vodafone Idea sinks nearly 10% and Airtel tumbles a bit after India’s Supreme Court denies a discount on past dues

Cost cutting is not helping Vodafone Idea, fresh funds might ⁠— but ‘nothing is coming’

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