Stabilisation of the Indian Telecom Industry is a Few Quarters Away: ICRA

The Indian telecom industry is currently witnessing intense competition and pricing pressures. Since the entry of Reliance Jio back in September 2016, incumbent telcos are facing financial stress and in recent times, the sector is all about mergers and consolidations. According to an ICRA note, stabilisation of the Indian telecom industry is a few quarters away as the merged Vodafone and Idea stabilise, and the subscriber base of the exiting operators diminishes, the competitive intensity is expected to moderate. ICRA believes that by early next fiscal, the industry is likely to witness better outlook driven by improvement in pricing levels. It’s also said that over the longer term, recovery in the sector would hinge on the back of a consolidated structure, better pricing power and sustained data usage. Meanwhile, the debt levels of the industry, which remain elevated as on March 2018, are expected to witness some reduction by way of asset monetisation and promoter funding.

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Mr Harsh Jagnani, Sector Head & Vice President – Corporate Ratings, ICRA said, “Consolidation transactions over the last two-three quarters released a sizeable subscriber base which provided opportunities to larger telcos to enhance their subscriber market share, thus keeping the competitive intensity high. From March 2017 to March 2018, the larger telcos together added 202 million active subscribers and a large portion of this – 192 million came at the expense of discontinuing telcos. Now the subscriber base of the discontinuing telcos has largely diminished.”

“But the impending merger of Vodafone and Idea, and the ensuing integration of the two may see some erosion of subscribers, giving an opportunity to other operators. Thus, we expect that a stable industry structure, with three operators holding more than 90% of the market share, to coincide with the stabilisation of Vodafone-Idea merger. Till such time, the pricing levels in the industry are unlikely to witness material improvement,” he further added.

ICRA also noted that consistent downward revision in prices has resulted in one of the steepest falls in the industry average revenue per user (ARPU) levels with the estimated blended ARPU falling from Rs 169 in Q1 FY2017 to Rs 127 in Q4 FY2018 – with the industry adjusted gross revenue (AGR) falling from Rs 40,450 crore to Rs 25,640 crore in the same period.

Speaking on the industry capex requirement, Mr Jagnani said “Notwithstanding the sizeable capex done by most operators in the past, the industry needs to expand in terms of technology and reach; strong growth in data usage being an important contributor. The capex requirement is coming from network expansion, technology upgradation, and greater fiberisation which is essential for data-heavy usage. The capex to sales ratio for the telcos has increased significantly – at around 30% against the average of 15 – 20% seen in the past. One respite is that spectrum auction is not expected in the medium term as the operators are well stocked following recent inorganic acquisitions. Such high capex makes it challenging to generate adequate returns with the prevailing ARPU levels, thus necessitating restoration of pricing power.”

The overall high operating leverage of the industry means that the decline in revenues has percolated to pressure on profitability and cash flows. Further, the sector is weighed down by high debt levels and capital expenditure (capex) requirements.

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