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Mobile customer ARPUs to cross Rs 200 by end of the year: Sunil Mittal

Bharti Airtel lays out expansion plans after Rs 21,000 crore fundraise.

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Mumbai: The board of Bharti Airtel on Sunday announced that it would raise Rs 21,000 crore through the issuance of equity shares available on a rights basis to eligible shareholders of the company. “This is the need of the hour for the company to accelerate from business as usual and capture a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” noted Bharti Airtel, chairman, Sunil Mittal.

Mittal acknowledged that the company is loaded with extraordinary debt both from AGR and spectrum dues and they are raising capital not just to pay off the dues but also invest more in building 5G capability, gain market share in mobile services, grow FTTH business and expand data centre business. “In two-three years you will see Airtel become much more comfortable with the debt on its balance sheet," he remarked.

Mobile network expansion

The company will continue to continue to upgrade spectrum which is the lifeline of the telecom industry and requires heavy capital commitment, said Mittal. The existing spectrum licenses need to be renewed in 2023 but their cost is marginal, he noted.

“15 per cent of devices in India are 5G enabled and price points for 5G devices are coming down,"  he observed, adding that “The government should ensure that pricing of spectrum remains attractive so that the benefits can be passed down to the customer who may enjoy a robust 5G ecosystem.”

According to Mittal the CapEx required to expand 4G capacity and upgrade existing capacity to 5G would not be very big. “We are largely done with our 4G capacity and only add extra capacity in high connectivity areas to cater to the surge in traffic. 5G capacities are huge and modular and upgrading to 5G in areas where there is higher traffic will be ideal,” he stated. 

Sustainability in telco business

While Airtel is positioned to capture the growth in the next two to three years, Mittal advocated that the economic model of the telecom business in the country needs to change and become viable for sustainable growth. 

“We expect the government to respond with a lighter touch," he said, noting that out of Rs 100 in revenues Rs 35 goes to the government in the form of levies.

He said, “Indians are consuming 16 Gb of data on average per user every month and having an appropriate and decent return on capital is vital to the sustainability of the industry. We don’t see data consumption increasing exponentially from 16 Gb which is already a global record.”

The company’s ARPUs stands at Rs 146 as reported in the last quarter results and “we need to quickly get it to Rs 200 and Rs 300 eventually," he said.

“At Rs 100, customers would be able to be on the network and be able to do a small amount of snacking, whereas at Rs 600-800 customers would be able to enjoy all benefits of data under the sun and it still would be the lowest tariffs in the world!” he said.

In September 2016, when Reliance Jio was launched, the entire telco industry’s ARPUs dropped below Rs 100. “The industry has reached Rs 150 and soon is expected to cross the Rs 200 mark by the end of the year,” he noted.

Broadband network expansion

Regarding the growth of FTTH business, he said “millions of new homes and offices are enabled with FTTH broadband services and we have seen a lot of momentum in the last 12 months. Our last quarter results showed that the number of fixed broadband connections are rising exponentially.”

The company’s home business segment added ~285,000 new customers during the last quarter to reach a 3.35 million customer base. Other than BSNL, Airtel has been in a rising position when it comes to broadband connectivity. Mittal said that CapEx allocation will be towards backhauling existing capacities and rolling out more fibre.

Data centre business

Regarding the data centre business, he said, “We have the right to win in this business as we know how to build data centres and have the domain expertise to run them efficiently. We have a significantly higher chance at success in this space than pureplay real estate players.”

Nxtra Data Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Bharti Airtel is engaged in the data centre business and runs 10 large data centres and 120 edge data centres. Nxtra is building multiple large data centres across the country in Pune, Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata to capture the significant growth opportunities in India. In July 2020, Carlyle announced that it would acquire a 25 per cent stake in Airtel’s data centre business at a valuation of $1.2 billion.

DTH business

Speaking about buying back its 20 per cent stake in Bharti Telemedia (D2H business) from Warburg Pincus, he said, “As we get wiser in hindsight, we realised that all our customer-facing businesses need to be in complete control of the mothership company Bharti Airtel. While infrastructure businesses like fibre and tower are different, all our go-to-market businesses need to be aligned as one. That’s why we’ve had tremendous success in the rollout of Airtel Black.”

Digital business

“It is difficult for companies from traditional backgrounds, even technology companies like ours to pick up on the digital momentum. It has taken Airtel four to five years to get to a point where we have got the right to call ourselves a digital company," said Mittal. “In the coming quarters, we will talk a lot more about digital and our revenues coming from digital will also be fairly impressive.”

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