The chairman of Vi, Kumar Mangalam Birla has written to the central government offering to hand over the stake he owns in the telco, if it would help save the company. In a letter written to Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, Birla said that he would be more than happy to work with the government to explore all possible options to save the company and strengthen national interest.
Why does Birla want to hand over his stake in Vi to the government?
Vi, formerly known as Vodafone Idea, is reeling under debt in excess of Rs 1.5 lakh crore. As of March 31 this year, the company owed nearly Rs 60,000 crore to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) as adjusted gross revenue (AGR), Rs 96,270 crore in deferred spectrum obligations and another Rs 23,000 crore to banks and financial institutions.
Following the Supreme Court upholding the DoT’s definition of AGR as the correct one in October 2019, Birla had in December 2019 said that if the company does not get help from the government on the issue, it would have to shut shop. In his June 7 letter, he reiterated that if there was no government support on the AGR issue, the deferred spectrum payments as well as a floor price for services offered, the telco’s operations would be driven to an “irretrievable point of collapse”.
Birla’s letter is seen as a last ditch effort to save the company from financial ruin. Sector experts say that along with the request to the government, the letter has also hinted that global investors are not willing to put money into the Indian telecom sector unless they are assured of a stable policy regime for a three-player market.
Technically yes, it can. Since telecommunications is a strategic sector, the government can, in public interest, bring crucial and critical policy interventions to benefit the masses at large.
According to a Deutsche Bank Research report of July 26, the only way Vi is likely to survive in the coming time is that if the government converts its debt into equity, and merge the operations of the company with state-run Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), and then giving the merged entity a “clear commercial mandate based on profitability targets and incentives”.
“Should this happen, Vi shareholders would be heavily diluted, as government debt is roughly six times the current market cap. But such a solution might be an acceptable outcome to shareholders, with a $20 billion enterprise value feasible and non-dilutive,” the report said.
Other telecom analysts and government officials, however, say that at a time when the government is struggling to offload its own stake in various public sector companies across the board, it is unlikely that it will take over another company, even if it is at no cost.
With crushing debt, it will be important for Vi to raise funds within the next few months just to sustain daily operations, according to experts. Apart from that, the telco will also need to use the funds raised to slowly cut back on the debt.
Since it is unlikely that the government will intervene by taking over the company, Vi will also have to look at raising tariff in the near future to cover the cost of its operations, while also pushing the government to announce some sectoral relief on AGR as well as spectrum payments obligations.
That said, most telecom sector experts say that Vi will find it difficult to sustain operations in the long run, unless it brings on board an investor with deep pockets that can fight out the low tariff regime.