Airtel, Vodafone-Idea fibre JV a business opportunity for PE funds

The firms would want to demerge their fibre assets and give it to a third company, making their balance sheets lighter and providing an annuity stream for investors.
Bharti Airtel’s decision to partner Vodafone Idea has come as a business opportunity for private equity funds keen on investing in the optical fibre space for leasing assets to earn rentals in return.

The optical fibre synergies will be on the lines of the tower business where the two companies will hive off the fibre assets to a third company, which will in turn lease them out.
Analysts believe that it is a balance sheet light approach for the companies which are under financial stress at the moment. In the current environment, the companies would want to demerge their fibre assets and give them to a third company for making their balance sheets lighter. As far as PE funds are concerned, it would be an annuity business for them.

Bharti Airtel chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal said on Tuesday that his company was looking at an optical fibre joint venture with Vodafone Idea to take on Reliance Jio.

“We made an invitation. We did that in towers – if you remember, Indus Towers was created. And on the same lines, we have asked Vodafone Idea to come and join the fibre company,” Mittal told reporters on the sidelines of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona (Spain).

On January 7, 2008, Vodafone Essar, a subsidiary of Vodafone Group, Bharti Infratel and Idea Cellular, said it formed an independent tower company, Indus Towers Limited, to provide passive infrastructure services in India to all operators on a non-discriminatory basis.

The three companies merged their existing passive infrastructure assets at 16 circles in the country. Vodafone and Bharti own approximately 42% each in the company, Idea Cellular holds 11.15% and the remaining 4.85% is held by private equity firm Providence. Indus Towers is an independently managed and operated company, offering services to all telecom operators and other wireless service providers such as broadcasters and broadband services providers.

The idea behind the formation of Indus Towers was enabling telecom operators to reduce operating costs through economies of scale.

In April 2018, Bharti Infratel Ltd, the tower arm of Bharti Airtel and Indus Towers, agreed to merge its businesses to create the world’s largest tower company after China.

The combined entity will own more than 163,000 towers.

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