Sunil Bharti Mittal, the founder of Bharti Enterprises. Photo: AFP

Indian telecom major Bharti Airtel, which is locked in a battle for subscribers with new entrant Reliance Jio and the newly merged company Vodafone-Idea in a price-sensitive market, is reportedly in talks with Japanese investment giant SoftBank to carry out its expansion plans and pare debt.

SoftBank is holding preliminary talks with Bharti Airtel for picking up a stake in its telecom business and related assets, Business Standard reports, quoting unnamed sources. The talks are wide-ranging and could include buying a stake in Bharti Airtel directly or through the holding company, the daily added.

In the recent June quarter, Bharti Airtel had posted its first-ever quarterly loss in 14 years and its debt stood at 1.16 trillion rupees (US$ 16.34 billion). However, its average monthly revenue per user rose to 129 rupees, which was higher than the rates of its competitors Jio (122 rupees) and Vodafone Idea (108 rupees).

SoftBank already enjoys close ties with Sunil Bharti Mittal, the promoter of Bharti Airtel, and that relationship dates back to nearly a decade.

The Japanese firm was one of the six marquee investors through which Airtel Africa was able to raise US$1.25 billion last year. Later in June this year, Airtel Africa went for an initial public offering.

Earlier, in 2011, Bharti Enterprises, the holding company of Bharti Airtel, had entered into a 50:50 joint venture with Softbank, called Bharti Softbank Holdings Pte, to invest in social media, gaming, e-commerce and renewable energy.

The joint venture company had invested in Hike, a homegrown messenger service, and SB Energy, which is investing in renewable energy products.

Meanwhile, SoftBank last month launched its second technology-focused investment corpus, SoftBank Vision Fund II, with an outlay of $108 billion.

The fund claimed to have received commitments from technology majors such as Apple, Foxconn, Microsoft, along with other tech companies and investors. However, the sovereign wealth funds of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi – which had contributed to Vision Fund I – were not listed as backers this time. SoftBank Group’s own investment in the fund will be $38 billion.

It plans to invest $2-4 billion in India over the next couple of years and the focus will be on financial technology companies. Its earlier deals in the country include investments in Paytm, Ola and Flipkart.

SoftBank launched its Vision Fund I two years ago and it had a corpus of $100 billion. It had invested in disruptive start-ups in areas such as financial technology, healthcare and transportation, including U.S. ride-hailing firm Uber Technologies Inc and Chinese peer Didi Chuxing.

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