American tech companies are on an investment binge in India’s mobile sector. Today, Google is eyeing an investment of about 5% in Vodafone Idea, according to the Financial Times, whose sources say the process is at an early stage.
Vodafone Idea, along with its mobile competitor Bharti Airtel, have both been struggling after the Indian government imposed billions of dollars in past fees related to spectrum licenses.
Vodafone Idea was stuck with a $4 billion charge, roughly equivalent to its 2018 full year revenues. And Bharti Airtel got stung with a bill of approximately $3 billion. Meanwhile, India’s newest mobile entrant Jio was almost unscathed by the government’s levies because it didn’t even exist during the time of the disputed fees. There was one low point when analysts speculated that Vodafone Idea or Bharti Airtel might go bankrupt, leaving India with just two mobile operators.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have relieved some of the pressure on Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel to pay their bills. “Prior to COVID-19 it appeared that the Indian government was already moving towards finally taking action to save VIL, and we think that India’s lockdown and the resultant surge in data traffic is providing a fairly forceful example of why previous policies, which have left the telecom industry on the brink, were not in India’s best interest,” wrote New Street analysts led by Chris Hoare.
Bharti Airtel and Nokia recently inked a major, multi-year network deal to expand the telecom operator’s 4G coverage and increase capacity. Financial terms were not disclosed but reports pegged the deal at nearly $1 billion. Bharti Airtel will deploy Nokia’s Single Radio Access Network solution across nine of 22 service areas in India.
Yesterday, various Indian media outlets reported that Microsoft is mulling a $2 billion (2.5%) stake in Jio Platforms, the umbrella organization over all of Reliance Industries' digital and telecom initiatives, including its mobile network operator Jio.
Microsoft’s interest in Jio follows a $5.7 billion investment in Jio Platforms by Facebook in April. Facebook said, “This investment underscores our commitment to India, and our excitement for the dramatic transformation that Jio has spurred in the country. In less than four years, Jio has brought more than 388 million people online, fueling the creation of innovative new enterprises and connecting people in new ways.”
In recent weeks Jio has also secured investments from private equity groups including KKR, General Atlantic, Vista Equity Partners and Silver Lake.