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Spectrum Payouts and Network Capex to Keep Telcos' FCF Negative

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Telecom companies exercised a balanced approach in the recent spectrum auctions, however the purchase of spectrum and non-spectrum linked capex will keep free cash flows (FCF) of the telecom operators negative, says India Ratings and Research (Ind-Ra). There were no major surprises in the spectrum auction and as expected by Ind-Ra spectrum bidding was rational, therefore Ind-Ra maintains its outlook on the sector as Stable to Negative. There were no takers for the pricey 700MHz band and 900MHz, while active participation was seen in the 1,800Mhz and 2,300MHz bands, and the most active participants were Vodafone India (Vodafone; emerged as the highest bidder) and Idea Cellular Ltd (Idea). Each operator's spectrum acquisition strategy was to ensure data capacity build up, which was indicated by the bigger block spectrum acquisition in the higher bands of 2300MHz/2500MHz.

As against the INR5.6trn valuation at reserve price, only INR657.89bn was realised. The winning prices were moderately higher (upto around 15%) than the reserve prices. The most steeply priced 700MHz representing 72% of the total reserve price remained unsold. Ind-Ra believes that the rationalisation in prices of 700MHz is a pre-requisite for its successful auction in future, given the strong divergence of views between operators and the regulator.

The immediate concern for the auction winners will be to put in place an optimal funding mix to meet the upfront (INR320bn) and subsequent staggered payments. Incumbent operators have the existing balance sheet strength to raise funds from the domestic or global markets. However, identifying the right long term funding mix to optimise the cost of funds and the monetisation of non-core assets to reduce the debt burden will be crucial for the credit profile. Upfront payment needs to be made within 10 calendar days from the issue of the demand notice (namely 10 October 2016).

Funding for the new spectrum will be a combination of equity and debt for all players. Vodafone raised equity of INR477bn, which will be used for the upfront spectrum payment and also support additional capex.

Idea has incremental capex plan of INR10bn post the spectrum acquisition, and its upfront payout for the spectrum will be part-debt funded given its moderate cash balances (1QFY17: INR7.8bn). Bharti Airtel Ltd had INR20.5bn of cash and equivalents at end-1QFY17; hence part debt funding could be used for the upfront spectrum payment.

Ind-Ra expects debt burden to rise for the top telcos, with the increase in spectrum and non-spectrum debt capex. In addition to the upfront spectrum payouts in FY17, network capex needs to be ramped up, which will keep FCF negative. Ind-Ra believes that the benefits of higher data volumes trickle down impact on revenue growth will be back ended. The launch of life-time free voice calls by Reliance Jio Infocomm (RJio) has threatened the major contributor of telcos revenues, namely voice calls. Ind-Ra thus expects RJio's entry strategy to squeeze operational cash flows of the sector in FY17-FY18.

Idea reported negative FCF (post capex and spectrum payment of INR11.8bn) in FY16. Bharti had a positive FCF of INR148bn in FY16, mainly supported by INR57bn sale proceeds from tower assets and INR67.7bn from sale of investments.

As Ind-Ra had highlighted in the report, the bidding strategies revolved around augmenting 4G capability, and data centric bands (1,800Mhz/2,300Mhz) saw high traction. In line with Ind-Ra's forecast, Bharti and RJio focused on plugging in spectrum gaps, while Idea and Vodafone focused on strengthening their position in key circles. The 800MHz band was taken up by RJio to fill in the gaps in Gujarat, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh (East) circles. Bharti and RJio bought most of the data-centric 2,300MHz spectrum band, whereas Idea and Vodafone bought most of the 2,500Mhz spectrum band. Vodafone strengthened its presence in its existing circles and also increased 4G capability to 17 circles from the earlier nine, while Idea has increased its presence to 20 circles from 11 earlier.

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(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Wed, October 19 2016. 12:55 IST