India's Bharti renews tie-up talks with MTN

NEW DELHI: Indian mobile company Bharti Airtel said Monday it renewed merger talks with South Africa's MTN to create "an emerging market telecom powerhouse" in a potential deal worth over 23 billion dollars.

Under the deal, Bharti, India's top mobile company, would acquire a 49-percent shareholding in MTN in its first major foray outside India.

In turn, MTN and its shareholders would get a 36-percent "economic interest" in New Delhi-based Bharti -- of which 25 percent would be held by MTN with the remainder held directly by MTN shareholders, Bharti said in a statement.

"We are delighted at the prospect of developing a partnership with MTN to create an emerging market telecom powerhouse," said billionaire tycoon Bharti Sunil Mittal, chairman of Bharti Airtel.

The two sides said they have agreed to discuss the transaction "exclusively with one another" until July 31.

The broader strategic aim "would be to achieve a full merger of MTN and Bharti as soon as it is practicable to create a leading emerging market telecom operator which today would have combined revenues of over 20 billion dollars and a combined customer base of over 200 million," Bharti said.

The Indian company crossed the 100-million subscriber mark earlier this month.

A spokesman valued the potential merger "in excess of 23 billion dollars."

Bharti hung up on talks a year ago with MTN after South Africa's flagship cellular firm proposed an ownership structure that the Indian company said would have involved "Bharti Airtel becoming a subsidiary of MTN".

Then Bharti's domestic rival Reliance Communications, India's second-largest mobile firm, began talks with Johannesburg-based MTN but they too collapsed.

A merger would create one of the world's leading mobile companies dominating two of the world's fastest-growing emerging wireless markets -- India and Africa.

"These are still two of the most unpenetrated regions -- this is the biggest opportunity for both of them," said Madhusudan Gupta, a senior research analyst at Gartner consultancy in Singapore.

Bharti, which hopes to double its domestic clients within three years to 200 million, says it wants to transforms itself from a home-grown Indian company to what it says is a "true Indian multinational telecom giant."

Both parties said the new talks were at an early stage and "may or may not lead to a transaction."

However, MTN chief executive Phuthuma Nhleko said "the rationale for this potential transaction between MTN and Bharti is highly compelling."

MTN, which also has 100 million customers, would become a "pre-eminent emerging market telecommunications company," Nhleko said in an statement.

"Both companies would stand to gain significant benefits from sharing each others best practices in addition to savings emanating from enhanced scale," Bharti said, adding, "We see real power in the combination."

"This time both have a better understanding of each other so there is more of a sense of optimism about the deal going through," said Gartner's Gupta.

Singapore Telecommunications, which owns more than 30 percent of Bharti, will continue to be a "strategic partner and significant shareholder" after the implementation of the potential transaction, Bharti said.