Faced with tough competition and high debt, Indian telecom operators are spinning off their tower assets to investors or independent tower companies to improve their financial situation. The 2016 sale of Tata Teleservices’ tower business (Viom) to ATC, and RCom’s planned sale of its tower unit (Reliance Infratel) to Brookfield are just two examples.

Operators in many other regions have divested towers to raise cash, not just India. This is part of an ongoing trend, enabled by the maturity of independent asset management companies. Such divestments in India, though, come against a backdrop of urgent debt reduction needs. Funding network capex while navigating this transition will be a challenge.

Do operators really gain from tower divestments?

Though operators benefit from a cash influx after an infrastructure sale, the devil is in the details. Tower sales typically come with long-term leaseback arrangements, with pre-determined pricing levels locked in. Operators need to set aside sufficient funds for recurring rental costs.

There have been instances where tower companies have shutdown service to operators following rental defaults; RCom is one case. Since the details of the outgoing rental costs incurred by operators are not revealed, it does question the merit of the tower sale. On the other hand, many towers remain underutilized, and operators see benefits not only from the initial sale but in lower ongoing costs as tower space is shared. It also helps them avoid new tower construction, hence avoiding some capex (all else equal).

In India, mobile operators increasingly are focused on their main telecom business, relying for tower assets on a mix of dedicated private equity firms and pure tower infrastructure companies. Deals continue to happen. For instance, now that Vodafone’s acquisition of Idea Cellular has been approved by the antitrust regulator, Bharti Infratel will likely try to buy Vodafone’s 42% stake in Indus Towers. It’s also possible that, post-merger, Vodafone/Idea’s combined 20,000 towers will be acquired by ATC.

Below are a few cases of Indian operators selling towers, or their holdings in tower subsidiaries. Two are completed deals, one is in progress, and two are still under discussion. 

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Tower asset transfers are affected directly by the broader services market, and M&A changes at that level. We’re seeing this now in India. Vodafone’s merger with Idea, for instance, set to complete in 1H18, is forcing a realignment of ownership in Indus Towers. RCOM’s hoped-for big payout from its tower sale to Brookfield is now in question, since the RCOM-Aircel merger collapsed. Meanwhile, Jio continues to push aggressively to expand, keeping margin pressure high on rivals.

Mobile market consolidation might free up capital for network expansion

In the wake of heavy competition and high debt, Indian operators are exploring various financial deals, not just asset spinoffs.

The recent Tata Teleservices (TTSL) sale of its mobile arm to Airtel, and Vodafone-Idea merger, may just be a silver lining for the Indian telecom mobile market. Over the next five years, we might see a drop in the number of mobile players from 9 to 5. Such consolidation should be beneficial for operators, which can merge network and spectrum holdings. That would free up more capital to invest in network expansions and upgrades; recently Indian operator capex has dipped. Tata Communications’ capital intensity (capex/revenues) averaged just 9.5% for the last three fiscal years, for instance.

With growing demand for a complex range of new mobile services (including in the IoT space), there is a strong argument that operators shift tower management to independent, specialized companies, and focus on providing better quality of service and coverage. India may soon provide a test for that argument.