News, views and commentary from the telecoms sector across emerging markets and developing countries worldwide

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Telenor: good news from India; troubles continue in Russia/CIS

Telenor HQ: India, Pakistan and Russia issues on the agenda

A recent DevelopingTelecomsWatch article went into the likelihood of mobile market consolidation in Pakistan. I was prompted to write this by a rumour doing the rounds, according to which Telenor is considering selling its operation in Pakistan to China Mobile, which already has a presence in the market in the form of the MNO Zong. I noted that Telenor's presence in Pakistan was worrying the authorities in neighbouring India - worrying them to the extent that it could make it impossible for the Scandinavian telco to increase its stake in start-up Indian cellco Unitech Wireless. Such is the level of tension between the two countries, it seems.

I moved on to speculate (wildly, I admit) that Telenor's thinking might be along the following lines:
  • We can't play in India and Pakistan...
  • India (population 1.15 billion, mobile penetration 34.47%) presents massively richer opportunities than Pakistan (population 173 million, mobile penetration 55.58%)...
  • so, if being in Pakistan prevents us from maximising the opportunity in India, let's get out of Pakistan...
Last week, however, came news of a possible way for Telenor to maintain a presence in both markets. An Economic Times article of 30th July indicates that India's Home Ministry is set to give security clearance for Telenor's hiking its stake in Unitech Wireless up to 74%, but on the condition that none of the staff who have worked at the Norwegian firm's Pakistan operation, are employed in India.

The Indian authorities are not only concerned about Telenor's Pakistan connections, it seems. Security agencies apparently also had reservations regarding the Norwegian company's presence in Bangladesh, where Telenor is the largest shareholder in market-leading cellco Grameenphone. The Economic Times article notes that both the neighbouring countries not only have a history of strained ties with India, "but have also served as a launchpad for various terror attacks". In the case of Bangladesh, investigations into serial terrorist blasts that killed 80 and injured 216 in the northern Indian tourist city of Jaipur last year pointed to the involvement of Bangladesh-based terrorist group Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, according to local reports.

The Economic Times piece notes that Indian authorities have had to take into account the concerns of the security agencies while also keeping in mind the reputation and stature of the Norwegian firm and how it has revolutionised rural telephony in Bangladesh via Grameenphone. The Bangladeshi MNO takes its brand name from that of Telenor's local partner Grameen Telecom, a non-profit sister concern of the internationally acclaimed microfinance organisation and community development bank Grameen Bank. A Grameenphone-Grameen Telecom partnership operates the national Village Phone programme, which puts mobile phones in the hands of very poor women who then operate a business, offering access to communications services to their neighbours.

This programme is not purely altruistic and has been an important component of an encouraging growth and profitability story for Grameenphone - and in a market where other cellcos have struggled to succeed. In this blog's most recent previous article, we heard from the CEO of rival Banglalink, which is owned by Egypt's Orascom Telecom. Ahmed Abou Doma explained in a recent statement that apart from the market leader (Grameenphone), "others are continually posting losses".

The Economic Times article also states that the Indian Government is keen not to send out the wrong message to foreign investors and has therefore "come around to the view that the Norwegian giant should not be held back from picking up up to [a] 74% stake in Unitech Wireless simply because it has a successful presence in Pakistan. " Keeping the human assets of the Indian and Pakistani arms of Telenor separate is expected to take care of risks such as spying and subversion, the article suggests.

For Telenor, good news from India comes at the same time as much less encouraging news from Russia. Within the last few hours, Reuters has reported that the Norwegian group has lost another round of its legal battle over its stake in Russian cellco Vimpelcom. The latest development in a long-running and acrimonious saga sees a Moscow appeals court rejecting Telenor's latest attempt to delay the enforcement of a USD 1.7 billion fine owed to Vimpelcom. Telenor faces the prospect of losing its stake in the Russian company after bailiffs ordered the sale of its shares to cover the fine that a Siberian court imposed for allegedly holding back Vimpelcom's expansion in Ukraine. Maria Kiselyova of Reuters writes that the case is being closely watched as a guide to the climate for foreign investors in Russia, coming after the shareholder battle last year that forced management and personnel changes at BP's Russian oil joint venture, TNK-BP. Kiselyova asserts that analysts watching the case, brought by Farimex, a small shareholder in Vimpelcom, say the forced sale of Telenor's stake in Russia's second-biggest mobile phone company by subscriptions "would further undermine confidence in the rule of law in Russia." She continues by saying that Telenor views the case as part of a protracted dispute with the powerful conglomerate of Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman, Alfa Group, the other strategic investor in Vimpelcom. Alfa, as Kiselyova notes, has denied any links to Farimex.

These developments follow a Q2 performance which beat the expectations of analysts polled by Reuters. The Norwegian telco posted a bigger-than-expected 6.8% rise in Q2 core earnings and curbed investments to protect against a potential fall in mobile revenues amid global economic hardship. EBITDA rose to USD 1.24 billion.

Telenor also cut its CAPEX target, excluding investments in India, to 13-15% of its revenues from an earlier prediction of 15-17%. An impairment charge for its Serbian operation, linked to a poorer outlook for that country, hit its bottom line, driving earnings per share down from last year's figures.

It remains to be seen, though, how a bigger stake in India's Unitech Wireless and possibility of losing its foothold in Russia and the wide CIS (where Vimpelcom has numerous subsidiaries) will affect Telenor going forward.

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