India Considers Offering Loans for Telecoms Owing $13 Billion in Past Dues
Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel. Image used for representational purposes.

India Considers Offering Loans for Telecoms Owing $13 Billion in Past Dues

(Bloomberg) -- India is considering options including offering subsidized loans to cash-strapped wireless carriers that owe $13 billion in past dues, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

The proposals include asking the companies to pay 20% of the principal upfront and the rest over a period of 16 years at an interest rate of 0.5% over the yield on the benchmark government bond, the officials said, asking not to be identified as the matter is private. A telecom ministry spokesman declined to comment.

The plan will help Vodafone Plc’s Indian venture with billionaire Kumar Mangalam Birla, which is saddled with $14 billion of debt and is staring at bankruptcy after the nation’s Supreme Court asked operators to pay the dues by March 17. In a market that had a dozen carriers two years ago, just three are left standing following a bruising price war with a company started by Mukesh Ambani, Asia’s richest man.

“Relaxation in payment terms will ease pressure on Vodafone’s balance sheet in the near term. They will have enough breathing space,” said Neerav Dalal, analyst at Kim Eng Securities Pvt. “This package will help Vodafone Idea to survive the crisis for the next couple of years.”

Another option being explored will require the companies to issue bonds and warrants against the balance amount while a third proposal involves banks providing funds against securities issued by the wireless operators. All three will offer a five-year moratorium on principal and interest payment.

Vodafone Idea Ltd.’s shares fell 1.3% at 11:14 a.m. in Mumbai, while Bharti Airtel lost 1.6% as stocks fell on mounting concerns about the economic impact of the novel coronavirus.

India Considers Offering Loans for Telecoms Owing $13 Billion in Past Dues

India’s government won a case in October when the Supreme Court endorsed the way authorities calculate annual adjusted gross revenue, a share of which is paid as license and spectrum fees. Telecom carriers have disputed the method for years.

The ruling hurt the firms, which were struggling to pare debt and survive a tariff war after Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd. entered the market with free calls and cheap data in 2016. Bharti Airtel Ltd. and Vodafone Idea posted record losses in the quarter through September.

The companies have paid 160 billion rupees to the government so far. While Bharti Airtel has raised enough funds to meet its obligation, Vodafone Idea has written to the government about its inability to pay the full amount saying that it needs urgent support to survive the crisis.

Digital Communication Commission, a top decision-making body of telecom ministry, will meet on Friday to discuss measures for giving relief to the sector. Any relief proposal can only be implemented with the top court’s permission.

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