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Deal takes Indian M&A story to dizzying heights
May, 26th 2009

By any yardstick, the Bharti-MTN deal, if it goes through, will usher in the next round of the Indian telecom M&A story. At an estimated ticket size of $23 billion, this will be the biggest cross-border deal that India Inc has been involved in, and twice as much as what British telco Vodafone paid to acquire a little over half of Hutchison Telecom Internationals Indian operations in early 2007.

If transactions like that of Hutch-Vodafone were inbound in nature, there were not too many big-ticket outbound telecom deals. Industry trackers point out that size and scale, which are inherent to the telecom industry globally, often hindered the process of an Indian telco going overseas to make that multi-billion transaction. That is now expected to change.

Businesses like Bharti have an outstanding presence in India and it only makes sense to leverage on their capabilities in other markets, said K Balakrishnan, CEO and MD, Lazard India. His firm was involved in some recent key telecom deals like NTT DoCoMos acquisition of a 26% stake in Tata Teleservices for $2.7 billion (Rs 13,070 crore), or AV Birla-owned Idea Cellulars buyout of Spice Communications for Rs 2,700 crore.

Today, Bharti has over 100 million subscribers in India and has a small overseas presence in areas like Seychelles, Jersey Islands and Sri Lanka. The foray into these smaller markets came through a process of license bidding though the MTN deal could change a lot of things. MTN, which has 100 million subscribers across Africa, Middle East and Asia, will catapult Bharti to the top five in the global pecking order. According to another investment banker, Bhartis foray into an emerging market like Africa is important. It helps in the company adopting a de-risking strategy in case the Indian markets start to slow down, he added.

From an outbound perspective, there have been instances of Reliance Communications (RCOM) acquiring Flag Telecom or Tata Communications buying out TGN though these were well under $300 million in terms of deal size.

In one stroke, the Bharti-MTNL could change a whole host of things. India is in the midst of a transition from a hyper to a normal subscriber growth rate and Indian operators will obviously have global aspirations. There will be some more operators looking at acquisitions overseas, Gartners Singapore-based senior research analyst Madhusudan Gupta told ET.

The key will be how well set Indian operators are placed domestically. At the end of the day, it comes down to scale and size before operators decide on going out to other markets, added Mr Balakrishnan.

Last year, RCOM was involved in dialogue with MTN after Bharti decided not to pursue the deal. This signalled the appetite that the Anil Ambani company had for that big overseas buyout. Clearly, the big-bang telecom deal overseas will, for the moment, remain the bastion of the big boys.

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