Idea Cellular, the country’s third largest mobile services operator after Bharti Airtel and Vodafone, has seen its share price fall over 17 per cent from its peak of Rs 172 in the last two months to around Rs 150 now. This, in spite of the fact that it improved its market share to 22.07 per cent in November last year from 18.66 per cent a year ago, and improved its average revenue per user to Rs 133 in July-September 2014 from Rs 122 a year ago. Still some investment analysts, like those from HSBC, have turned cautious on the stock and see limited upside for it. That explains the slide in the share price.
Actually, the spectrum auction scheduled for February is going to be crucial for Idea Cellular. Its licence in as many as nine telecom circles (the country is divided into 22 circles) will come up for renewal this year, much more than that for rivals Bharti Airtel (six) and Vodafone (seven). And retaining the 900 MHz spectrum in these circles is crucial for its future because they account for 72 per cent of its revenue. To retain the spectrum, it will have to fork out a lot of money. If the base price announced by the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) is any indicator, it could set Idea Cellular back by over Rs 16,000 crore. To make matters worse, DoT has raised the base price by another 32 per cent after it was asked to do so by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. The final price that Idea Cellular pays could be still higher. That’s because while only two blocks (of 5 MHz each) are up for auction, there could be four or five claimants, including the incumbents. This could trigger a bidding war.
Open to risks
Of course, DoT has said that three more blocks (in the 2100 MHz band) are soon going to be available but those will be auctioned only later this year or early next year. This has dashed any hope of inexpensive spectrum in next month’s auction. Analysts estimate that Idea Cellular might have to cough up over Rs 20,000 crore just to hold on to its spectrum in the nine circles. As 25 per cent of the money has to be paid upfront, it will need to arrange Rs 5,000 crore. This won’t be easy since the company is already saddled with with net debt of over Rs 18,000 crore. However, it has a net worth of Rs 21,400 crore. Idea Cellular did not comment on its auction plans because it is in silent period.
Bharti Airtel, which had anticipated this risk, has fully hedged itself: last February, it bought spectrum in the 1800 MHz band in all the circles where it could lose 900-MHz spectrum. In case it fails to retain the 900-MHz spectrum, its subscribers can be moved seamlessly to the other band. There would be no disruption in service. Idea Cellular too bought 1800-MHz spectrum in that auction but in only seven circles, leaving two important circles, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh West, exposed to the risk. While it could not lay its hands on any spectrum in Gujarat, it got just 1.6 MHz in Uttar Pradesh West, which is grossly inadequate. The two circles together account for as much as 15 per cent of the total revenue of Idea Cellular. So, retaining spectrum here is of the utmost importance for the company, even if it causes financial pain.
Some say that Idea Cellular is not the only one to face this risk: Vodafone too has not hedged itself adequately against a possible loss of spectrum as it did not pick up 1800-MHz airwaves in three important circles (Gujarat, Haryana and Maharashtra). But the difference is that Vodafone, unlike Idea Cellular, has huge cash surplus to play around with. It has the wherewithal to buy 900-MHz spectrum even at a hefty premium and use it for 3G, or third-generation, services. Idea Cellular had also bought additional spectrum in Delhi in the 900-MHz band last February on which it plans to extend its 3G services. This band is more efficient than 2100 MHz that players like Bharti Airtel and Idea Cellular are using for 3G services, which could give Vodafone a distinct edge in the data business, where the future of telecom lies.
For its part, Idea Cellular is looking to use the 1800-MHz band to launch its LTE data services. In its last quarterly results analysis, it hinted that this spectrum could be used to offer LTE services in Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Haryana, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh and even Karnataka (you require 5 MHz to start the service, which it has in all these circles). If that is the intention, it has no choice but to retain a substantial part of its 900 MHz spectrum for its voice service. Data is becoming more and more important for Idea Cellular. According to Credit Suisse, nearly 40 per cent of its EBITDA (earnings before income, taxation, depreciation and amortization) growth in the last two years was driven by 3G. It adds that its incremental EBITDA margins on data are as high as 66 per cent.
Need for more
Analysts say Idea Cellular will require more airwaves to power its data business, especially with Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio preparing for it aggressively. Unlike these two, Idea Cellular is hamstrung by the lack of any spectrum in the 2300-MHz band. Bharti Airtel is using this band to offer LTE services (it has 20 MHz spectrum in eight circles), while Reliance Jio will use it for a pan-India launch of its LTE services. Reliance Jio has also bought spectrum in the 1800-MHz band which it can use to host not only voice but even LTE services. Idea Cellular has 2100-MHz spectrum in 11 circles (5 MHz each) where it offers 3G services. In the circles where it does not have spectrum, it has tied up with Bharti Airtel and Vodafone.
Analysts say that Idea Cellular’s strategy will have to include two things: it can expand its 3G network to more circles or it can get more spectrum in the existing circles and provide better services. To achieve either of the two objectives, it has no choice but to bid for 2,100-MHz spectrum in next month’s auction. But with a mere 5MHz on the block, there could be mayhem in the market. That is because none of the incumbents — Bharti Airtel, Vodafone, Idea Cellular, Aircel or Reliance Communications — has a pan-India 3G footprint and would therefore bid aggressively. Companies like Telenor could also join the party as they do not have spectrum for high speed data at all.
Idea Cellular surely has a tough challenge ahead.