The year 2021 proved to be a milestone for the telco business in India, with the government undertaking a series of reforms to ease the financial burden on the sector and pave the way for next-generation technology roll-outs. The biggest move was the announcement of the much-awaited reforms and relief package, which set the stage for turnaround of the financially crippled sector. The package aims to address the industry’s long-standing issues, such as high levies and charges, clarity on the definition of adjusted gross revenue (AGR), and liquidity challenges faced by telcos.
At the telco level, the package provided much-needed respite to Vodafone Idea Limited (Vi), which had been struggling to stay afloat. Further, the government allowed a four-year moratorium on outstanding dues related to AGR, as well as spectrum-related payments, a move that benefited all telcos.
During the year, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) also took steps to implement the reform package. These included removing several non-telecom income items, such as property rents, dividends and interests, from the calculation of AGR; removing the requirement of either a financial bank guarantee to fund yearly spectrum instalments or a performance bank guarantee to fulfil roll-out commitments; reducing the performance and financial bank guarantee requirement of telcos by 80 per cent; and returning bank guarantees of around Rs 27 billion to Reliance Jio, Rs 40 billion to Airtel and Rs 25 billion to Vi.
Another key move was the allotment of 100, 800 and 10 units of experimental 5G airwaves to Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vi in the 3.5 GHz, 26 GHz and 700 MHz bands respectively. The allotment of experimental airwaves marked the beginning of the 5G era in the country, with all three private telcos conducting trials for various technologies supported by 5G networks.
In terms of the competitive landscape, 2021 witnessed intense competition between Airtel and Jio. While Jio remained the market leader in terms of finances posting profits quarter after quarter, Airtel emerged as the top telco with an ARPU of Rs 153 during the quarter ended September 2021, with Jio and Vi recording ARPUs of Rs 143.60 and Rs 109 respectively. Meanwhile, Jio maintained its lead in the wireless segment. It was the only operator that gained subscribers during October 2021 and added 1.76 million subscribers as opposed to Airtel and Vi, which lost 0.49 million and 0.96 million subscribers respectively.
To strengthen its market position, Jio finally launched its much-awaited new 4G device JioPhone Next, jointly developed by Reliance Industries Limited and Google, after a prolonged delay. Meanwhile, Bharti Airtel initiated a prepaid tariff hike of 20-25 per cent in the prepaid segment, with Vi and Jio following suit.
Vi, the telco that struggled financially throughout 2021, has found a new ray of hope as its board recently approved the conversion of the interest on spectrum auction instalments and AGR dues into equity. Post the move, the government has become the single largest shareholder in the telecom firm with a shareholding of around 35.8 per cent.
Net, net, the year 2022 is expected to be action-packed, both in the telco as well as the 5G space. While the pricing and availability of 5G spectrum bands still remain a much-debated topic, the industry might see spectrum auctions happening during the second half of 2022. On the telco front, Vi’s move to convert dues into equity will address its immediate concern of liquidity. However, it remains to be seen whether the telco thrives or survives.
A look at the performance of telecom operators in 2021, and the key initiatives taken by them during the year…
Overall, the year 2021 proved to be a positive one for Reliance Jio on several key aspects. For one, the telco made giant strides in the 5G domain by conducting many trials and focusing on indigenous manufacturing of 5G equipment. In June 2021, the telco commenced field testing for 5G networks across four circles in the country. The tests were conducted jointly with partners using its own technology and demonstrated speeds in excess of 1 Gbps. The telco also conducted trials for immersive high definition virtual reality (VR) using its home-grown 5G new radio (NR) and 5G core network (5GCN), and connected robotics over its indigenous 5G radio access network (RAN) and 5G SA core network.
To enhance indigenous manufacturing of 5G, Jio Platforms collaborated with Qualcomm Technologies for local manufacturing of 5G-critical equipment in India, and started working with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for standardising 5G device configurations. It also collaborated with Google Cloud with the goal of powering 5G in the enterprise and consumer segments. Further, the operator partnered with Spirent Communications to validate its cloud-native 5G SA core network for real-world workloads and traffic conditions using Spirent Landslide.
Apart from 5G, another landmark move was the launch of JioPhone Next in partnership with Google. The telco tied up with five banks to finance the sale of JioPhone Next. Further, the telco made efforts to tighten its grip on mid-segment consumers with “Jio Exclusive” bundled smartphones.
Enhancing infrastructure capabilities also remained high on Jio’s agenda for the year. In February 2021, Jio announced plans to build a data centre in Uttar Pradesh at an investment of around $950 million. Further, it announced the construction of the largest international submarine cable system centred on India. Jio deployed additional spectrum across various states including Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha in an effort to enhance the bandwidth available to users. The telco also strengthened connectivity along the Uttarakhand border and installed 1,529 telecom towers across key tribal villages in Andhra Pradesh to provide 4G coverage.
Jio also forged a number of partnerships during the year. These included a partnership with MG Motor India to power its upcoming SUV with internet of things (IoT) solutions; and deploying its first commercial NB-IoT service for Tata Power Delhi Distribution’s Limited’s (Tata Power-DDL) smart meters.
In the enterprise space, Jio Business introduced an integrated offering for micro, small and medium businesses in India to cater to their digital connectivity needs. Moreover, Jio Haptik Technologies partnered with customer service software firm Zendesk to help businesses transform customer experience.
Financially, the operator continued to report a strong performance during the year. The company reported a consolidated net profit of Rs 37.28 billion for the quarter ended September 30, 2021, a year-on-year increase of 23.5 per cent. It reported gross revenue of Rs 232.22 billion during the quarter ended September 2021, recording a growth of 15.2 per cent. The earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) for the quarter under review stood at Rs 92.94 billion as compared to Rs 79.71 billion a year ago.
To further enhance its ARPU, Jio announced a hike in its prepaid tariffs, a move that was initiated by its peers Bharti Airtel and Vi. New prepaid tariff plans were introduced with a hike of up to 21 per cent in the existing rates, effective from December 1, 2021.
Moving into 2022, speculations are high about Jio’s plan to launch its IPO and undertake a fundraising exercise of up to Rs 80 billion by way of selling corporate bonds in the local market. If these plans materialise, they will help strengthen Jio’s 5G ambitions as the race towards 5G intensifies.
The year 2021 proved to be a remarkable one for Bharti Airtel. The telco witnessed a revival and overtook Reliance Jio in several key aspects. In the 5G space, Airtel was ahead of other telcos in carrying out live 5G demonstrations over a commercial network in Hyderabad, and became the first telco to conduct 5G trials. Airtel’s 5G trial network went live in Gurugram’s Cyber Hub and Mumbai’s Phoenix mall, among other regions. Besides conducting 5G trials, the operator carried out India’s first cloud gaming session in a 5G-based setting and partnered with TCS to demonstrate 5G-based remote robotic operations and artificial intelligence (AI)-driven quality inspection for factories.
On the financial front, Airtel undertook a fundraising exercise through a rights issue in October 2021. The issue was subscribed approximately 1.44 times and was overbid by both the public and promoter groups. The telco stated that it would utilise the proceeds, worth Rs 52.46 billion, to improve its balance sheet, create a war chest to pay statutory dues, expand its 4G coverage and prepare for 5G spectrum auctions. Soon after the rights issue closed, Airtel opted for a four-year moratorium on spectrum and AGR payments, and prepaid Rs 155.19 billion to DoT to clear all the deferred liabilities for spectrum acquired in 2014.
Airtel’s financial results also showed a marked improvement, with the company posting revenue of Rs 198.9 billion during the quarter ended September 2021 versus Rs 181 billion a year ago, a growth of 18.3 per cent. The net profits stood at Rs 34.7 billion as against losses a year ago. Airtel’s ARPU continued to remain higher than that of Reliance Jio at Rs 153. Further, the telco received government approval for enhancing the foreign portfolio investment limits in its subsidiary companies. Another significant development during the quarter was that Airtel Payments Bank turned profitable. To further expand its presence in the payments space, Bharti Airtel-owned Airtel Digital Limited purchased a 10 per cent stake in the Tata Group’s Ferbine Private Limited for Rs 500 billion. With this investment, Airtel will own a stake in Ferbine, which was incorporated in January 2021 to set up a pan-India umbrella entity for retail payments.
Realising that fibre is the way forward, Airtel announced that it will shut down its copper infrastructure in a year and will only offer fibre-to-the home (FTTH) services in the country. Further, Airtel launched a one-of-a-kind service called Airtel Black, which allows customers to bundle two or more services (fibre, direct-to-home, mobile) into one bill and receive one customer care number for problem resolution. Airtel Xstream Fiber also launched a service called “Secure Internet”, which enables real-time blocking of malware (including viruses), and high-risk websites and apps, through its network security apparatus for all devices connected through Wi-Fi.
Airtel also focused on diversifying its operations during the year. To scale up its presence in the data centre domain, Airtel unveiled a new brand identity, Nxtra by Airtel, for its data centre business, and outlined investment plans to enhance its data centre network. In an attempt to increase its presence in the satcom space, Nettle Infrastructure Investments, a wholly owned arm of Bharti Airtel, acquired a 100 per cent stake in OneWeb India.
In the enterprise space, Airtel launched advanced connectivity solutions based on Cisco software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) technology. The solution enables businesses, large and small, to accelerate digital transformation for their customers. In addition, Airtel was empanelled by the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN) to offer its cybersecurity solutions to the central and state governments as well as public sector entities, in addition to corporate customers. To cater to the IoT space, Airtel launched Airtel IoT, an integrated platform that enables enterprises to harness the power of IoT and be ready for the upcoming era of connectivity.
In an attempt to tap into the over-the-top (OTT) opportunity, Airtel announced the launch of its video platform-as-a-service called Airtel IQ Video. The new offering allows businesses to build world-class video streaming products for large and small screens with minimal investment in infrastructure and technology. In addition, Airtel has entered the advertising business with the launch of Airtel Ads. Airtel Ads allows brands of all sizes to curate consent-based and privacy-safe campaigns. Further, Airtel has increased its focus on environmental sustainability by forming an environmental, sustainability and governance (ESG) committee of its board of directors. As part of its mission to rapidly grow its green energy footprint, Airtel commissioned a 14 MWp captive solar power plant to meet the energy requirements of its core and edge data centres in Uttar Pradesh.
On the network modification front, Airtel partnered with Intel for 4G and 5G virtualised radio access network (vRAN) and open RAN technology to transform Airtel’s network. It also deployed a new photonic infrastructure design from Ciena to almost triple its optic fibre network capacity for delivering a world-class 5G experience to customers. Apart from this, Airtel deployed additional spectrum across states/UTs including Jammu & Kashmir, West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Haryana, Punjab and Gujarat. The year also saw the first-ever agreement forged between Airtel and Reliance Jio, wherein Airtel sold airwaves in the 800 MHz band in three circles. Following the closure of the trading deal, Jio now has the right to use Airtel’s 800 MHz spectrum in the Andhra Pradesh, Delhi and Mumbai circles. Further, Airtel signed deals with IBM, Juniper Networks, Oracle, Tejas Network, Cisco, etc. to enhance its network capability.
The telco ended the year by initiating a tariff hike of 20-25 per cent in the prepaid segment, in an attempt to raise its ARPU. The coming year seems financially promising for Airtel as the impact of the tariff hike is expected to kick in, helping the telco increase its revenues. Operationally, too, Airtel seems set to explore new opportunities in the coming year. With the recent formation of a joint venture with Hughes Communications India Private Limited, Airtel is all set to venture into the satellite broadband space. 5G too seems to be the top priority for Airtel, but it remains to be seen whether the telco succeeds in rolling out the services before its peers.
Vodafone Idea Limited
Vi continued battling its financial woes as it stepped into 2021. The year started with Vi failing to pay the first instalment of its AGR dues to DoT. Further, the operator got embroiled in a legal battle with DoT regarding the definition of AGR and was served a show-cause notice for non-payment of licence fee during the quarter ended March 2021. However, things started getting better once the government announced a relief package. Following this, Vi opted for a four-year moratorium on payment of spectrum dues.
Vi began 5G trials in Pune and Gandhinagar to catch up with its peers in the 5G space. Further, the telco deployed several 5G-ready technologies such as massive multiple input multiple output, dynamic spectrum refarming and cloudification of core. Towards the end of the year, Vi, along with its technology partner, Nokia, conducted a 5G trial to enhance rural broadband connectivity in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. Around the same time, the operator demonstrated secure network slicing using Nokia’s 5G RAN and 5G core.
In its endeavour to promote innovative, home-grown 5G applications, Vi tested 5G-based solutions on aerial traffic mana-gement and the motion capture system, in partnership with Vizzbee Robotics Solution and Tweek Labs along with DoT. In addition, Vi partnered with Athonet to test 5G-based solutions in several areas including smart construction, smart warehouse, smart agriculture and smart workplace. It also partnered with Larsen & Toubro (L&T) for a pilot project to test 5G-based smart city solutions.
Apart from 5G, the telco focused on enhancing its network capability. In June 2021, Vi collaborated with Cisco to simplify and automate its network to support 4G and future 5G use cases. During the year, Vi also refarmed 3G spectrum to 4G across 11 cities in Gujarat and the majority of its sites in Hyderabad, Warangal, Belgaum, Davangere, Hubli-Dharwad and Mangaluru, Pune, Nashik, Nagpur, Aurangabad, Solapur, Kolhapur, Goa, Jalgaon, Nanded, Sangli-Miraj-Kupwad, Amravati, Ahmednagar, Akola, Bhiwandi, Ulhasnagar and Vasai, thereby enhancing GIGAnet 4G capacity in these cities. Moreover, Vi deployed additional spectrum across the Mumbai, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana circles to enhance 4G capacity. The operator launched its Wi-Fi calling or VoWi-Fi services in the Delhi, Mumbai, Uttar Pradesh (East) and Gujarat circles.
To expand its enterprise business, Vi Business partnered with Google Cloud India to offer collaboration solutions to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and start-ups. Vi Business also partnered with Firstwave Cloud Technology to launch a new security offering, Vi Cloud Firewall, a cloud-deployed security solution for enterprises. In the smart cities space, the Guwahati Municipal Corporation appointed Vi Business as the implementation partner for providing Vi’s intelligent mobility solutions.
Financially, Vi’s loss narrowed to Rs 71.32 billion during the quarter ended September 2021 from Rs 73.19 billion in the quarter ended June 2021. Meanwhile, revenue for the quarter was Rs 94.1 billion, witnessing a growth of 2.8 per cent on a quarter-on-quarter basis.
In a bid to enhance ARPUs and ease the financial stress, the telco followed its peers and announced up to a 25 per cent increment in prepaid tariff plans. The new plans came into effect from November 25, 2021. Vi explored several funding activities during the year, but none of them seemed to have materialised so far.
The year 2022 seems to have brought back some hopes of revival for Vi as the telco’s board has opted for converting its interest on spectrum and AGR dues into government equity. Further, the telco has reportedly raised Rs 50 billion as short-term loans from a number of banks. While analysts perceive the move to be a positive one that can help the telco raise funds and brighten its prospects for long-term survival, it remains to be seen whether it actually helps turn around the telco’s position in the Indian telecom space.
BSNL and MTNL
Things took a surprising turn for state-run telcos BSNL and MTNL during 2021, with the government announcing the deferment of their merger due to MTNL’s high debt levels. However, the government continued the close cooperation and service integration between the telcos.
In a bid to revive the two telcos, the government launched the National Monetisation Pipeline in August 2021. The initiative aims to attract funds worth Rs 351 billion for the revival of the state-run telcos from the partial sale of their tower assets. Till date, the government has initiated the process of selling MTNL’s 20 properties in Mumbai.
Financially, the telcos demonstrated a marked improvement in their performance and turned EBITDA positive during 2021. Both the PSUs also narrowed their losses and reduced liabilities. While BSNL brought down its consolidated loss to Rs 74.41 billion in 2020-21, MTNL’s losses shraunk to Rs 25.54 billion. Further, BSNL’s total liabilities reduced from Rs 876.18 billion in 2019-20 to Rs 811.56 billion in 2020-21, while MTNL’s reduced from Rs 302.42 billion to Rs 293.91 billion.
On the connectivity front, BSNL obtained a licence for the provision of in-flight and maritime connectivity services. Following this, the Indian airline companies will now be able to deploy in-flight connectivity powered by BSNL within India as well as globally. BSNL also extended its connectivity to border areas by installing a mobile towers in Merak village and other areas around Pangong Lake in Ladakh.
The telco also entered into key strategic agreements. In a bid to escalate its broadband footprint, BSNL signed an agreement with the Universal Service Obligation (USO) Fund to provide high-speed internet access to the north-eastern states. Under this partnership, the USO Fund will extend financial support to BSNL for a period of three years for hiring 10 Gbps international bandwidth to provide internet connectivity to Agartala from Bangladesh Submarine Cable Company Limited. Further, BSNL selected Israeli satellite transmission firm NOVELSAT to provide high capacity satellite-based backhaul and broadband services to Lakshadweep, and the Andaman, & Nicobar Islands under a USO Fund project funded by DoT.
The year also proved to be fruitful for BSNL on the 4G front. It invited e-tenders for planning, testing, deployment and annual maintenance of its 4G network across four operational zones in addition to the Delhi and Mumbai circles for 57,000 sites. Recently, in December 2021, BSNL wrote to heads of its telecom circles to identify sites and related materials for the installation of 4G nodes. The telco is looking at a September 2022 timeline for a pan-India roll-out of 4G services, and expects estimated incremental revenue of Rs 9 billion in the first year of roll-out. On the 5G front, while DoT allocated spectrum for 5G field trials to MTNL, it is yet to initiate trials using the spectrum.
Net, net, the government’s revival package seems to have started generating financial benefits, but the journey ahead will be challenging amidst stiff competition from private peers. With BSNL continuously delaying its 4G roll-out plans, it remains to be seen whether the operator meets its September 2022 deadline for the roll-out of 4G services.