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Telecom giants, barring Jio, clamour for sops: What will the govt do?

The sector is facing cumulative debt as high as Rs 7.5 lakh cr; banks fear fresh NPAs may arise

Manoj Gairola | The Wire 

Telecom
Telecom operators are being crushed under mounting debt, which banks fear could lead to a rise in their NPAs

At a time when a chorus of demand for farm loan waivers of around Rs 3 lakh crore is growing, captains of the telecom industry will meet minister Manoj Sinha to seek relief for the industry that has a cumulative debt of Rs 4.5 lakh crore.

This debt becomes Rs 7.5 lakh crore if deferred payment over the next few years for spectrum is included. 

On Thursday, Anil Ambani (RCOM), Sunil Mittal (Bharti Airtel), Kumar Mangalam Birla (Idea) and Vittorio Colao (Vodafone) will meet Sinha and seek the lowering of both licence fee and GST fees and ask for the restructuring of a deferred payment on the spectrum fee among other demands.

– which is at loggerheads with incumbent operators over various issues – will be represented by Mahendra Nahata, a close associate of Mukesh Ambani and a shareholder in

India’s banking sector has also clamoured for relief measures for the telecom operators over the last few months, as they fear that their exposure to the sector would soon start becoming non-performing assets (NPAs).

Historical comparisons

Today’s situation closely resembles the industry in 1999, when companies weren’t able to pay the annual fee for the licences that they won through an auction. The-then NDA government steered operators away from the fixed licence fee regime to a revenue-share model. Under the new system, the operator paid 15 per cent of adjusted gross revenue as a fee. It was later reduced to 10 per cent, 8 per cent and 6 per cent for category ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ circles in 2003 under the Unified Access Services Licence regime, while Reliance was allowed to offer pan-India mobile services.

“It is important that the government gives any relief only on merit and should not come under any pressure,” said B K Syngal, former CMD of VSNL.

The current situation, however, is slightly different from the problem that operators were facing in 1999. Today’s scenario has been aggravated by the entry of Reliance Jio, which offered free data and voice services for nearly six months. It would later go on to charge Rs 99 per year for unlimited voice and data. 

“The only relief that the government can give is by lowering various taxes or deferred payment of licence fee, otherwise it would become controversial,” said D P S Seth, former member Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), “interconnect usage charge (IUC) should not be part of this exercise.” 

IUC has become an increasingly contentious issue over the last year as wants a zero IUC regime, while incumbent operators would like IUC to be increased. When a customer of one operator (say Vodafone) calls the subscriber of another operator (say Airtel), pays IUC to Presently, IUC charges are 14 paise per minute. For incumbent operators, generally the number of incoming calls is equal to the number of outgoing calls.

Current discussions

The government has formed an inter-ministerial group comprising senior officials (joint secretary and above) of telecom ministry and finance ministry.

“It is a tricky situation. If we recommend any relief for the operators, it will bring down government revenues, which are already low after entry of If we don’t give any relief there are chances that the debt of the industry would become NPAs,” said a member of IMG. “We may not consider demand of operators to change IUC,” said the member.

Last week, all telecom service providers presented their views on relief package before the IMG in one-on-one meetings. The following are excerpts of presentations given by Reliance Jio, Bharti and Cellular.

Reliance Jio:

  • Debt equity ratio in Indian telcos is very high – 1:1.5 for Bharti and RCOM and 1:2 for Cellular.
  • No new equity investment by incumbent operators. Incumbent operators should infuse about Rs 1.25 lakh crore equity.
  • Deferred payment option without any control is not good for the industry.
  • Big three operators – Airtel, and have marginalised small players.
  • Reduce GST to 12% from 18%.
  • Big three operators are not allowing reduction in IUC.
Bharti Airtel:

  • has misrepresented facts. Total capex and spectrum cost of is 1.25 lakh crore, while debt is Rs 42,000 crore.
  • There should be level playing field for all operators. IUC should be cost based and should be increased.
  • Licence fee should be reduced from 8% to 3%.
  • Moratorium on deferred payment on licence fee should be increased from two to five years.
  • Number of installments should be increased from ten to 15 years
  • Interest rates should be set at ten-year G-Sec rates.

Cellular:

  • Cellular has made an investment of Rs 1.24 lakh crore till date.
  • IUC should be increased from 14 paise per minute to stop predatory pricing.
  • There should be a floor price for voice and data.
  • Lower GST rates to 5%.
  • Number of installment for deferred licence fee payment should be increased for the whole 20-year period of licence
  • Reduce licence fee to 3%

There is no doubt that at a revenue of about Rs 2.11 lakh crore and EBITDA of Rs 50,000 crore, it is difficult to serve a debt of Rs 4.5 lakh crore. However, the government will have to be cautious as there remains a thin line between crony capitalism and genuine relief.


Manoj Gairola is Editor, Telecom Tiger.
By arrangement with thewire.in

First Published: Thu, June 22 2017. 11:10 IST
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