Fresh strategy

Mittal is getting ready for the big fight with Ambani to stay on top

Bharti Airtel’s fourth quarter losses from Indian operations – the first time ever – could be a temporary blip in the company’s scheme of things but it does beg the question whether the multi-billion dollar telecom services behemoth is under business stress and whether it will continue to bleed and lose to competition. The most valued telecom services Indian company with an imprint in African markets could well be at the cusp of a huge upheaval. How well the management led by Sunil Bharti Mittal manages this transformation will be key to sustainability of the conglomerate.

Without profits of Rs 698.70 crore from its African operations in the last quarter of 2017-18, Bharti Airtel would have ended up with major losses as an enterprise.

Reliance Jio’s entry into the telecom services space in September 2016 did change the revenue model with virtually no charges on mobile telephone calls, SMSes and negligible pay on basic data services. Bharti Airtel had to shell out big time with competitive offers to retain its customers, grow on market dominance of sorts and at the same time ensure Reliance Jio did not get the space to poach its customers.

One only hopes that Sunil Bharti Mittal, the consummate entrepreneur, has something up his sleeve to ensure Bharti Airtel does not go down the same path as Vodafone and Idea Cellular that continued to report losses from their domestic operations for the last few quarters. The company could not have been unaware of what the results would have meant for the market. That surely explains why the Mittal clan was out in full force to re-assure the market that the company was well funded and prospering with its pan-India customer base and hoarded spectrum airwaves.

Bharti Airtel would have to show some spunk in the data and value added services space where the real money is and which could peak in the next four years or so notwithstanding the unfavourable regulatory environment, huge competition on hand and the business model going awry.

Mittal appears to have fired his first salvo just a day after the losses reported by his flagship, Bharti Airtel. The merger of Bharti Infratel, the company’s mobile towers arm and Indus Towers to create a $15 billion entity, 50:50 telecom infrastructure conglomerate has signalled that Mittal is getting ready for the big fight with the Ambanis to stay on as India’s top mobile telephony company. Coupled with consolidation in the telecom infrastructure business, Bharti Airtel and Sunil Bharti Mittal may even have to consider selling their promoters’ stake to build a war chest for the battle ahead.

Bharti and Vodafone that have joined hands in the infrastructure business may have to explore telecom services opportunities together to cut costs, make cross-offers and tango. Challenging Mukesh Ambani with every customer addition may now turn out to be Mittal’s priority given that Reliance Jio added nine million customers in February against Bharti’s four million plus accretion. So, the war between two giants may not end anytime soon.