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Reliance Jio to gain most subscribers if Vodafone exits India, experts say

Indian telecoms operator Reliance Jio will grab the lion's share of Vodafone Idea Ltd.'s subscribers if the ailing rival is forced to exit the market due to unpaid fees, experts told S&P Global Market Intelligence.

The Vodafone Group PLC unit, and competitor Bharti Airtel Ltd., lost a long legal battle in October 2019 when India's Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government and its definition of adjusted gross revenue. The Department of Telecommunications estimates Vodafone Idea owes 582.54 billion rupees as a result.

The group's CEO Nick Read said that if it is forced to pay the fees, it could go into liquidation. In the third quarter of 2019, the company had 1.03 trillion rupees in net debt and has been facing a steady loss in market share and subscribers since it was created in 2018 via the merger of Vodafone and Idea Cellular.

If Vodafone exits India, the country’s largest operator, Reliance Industries Ltd.'s Reliance Jio, could benefit most, according to experts. This is because it offers low-end prepaid plans, a key market for Vodafone Idea. Prepaid plans see customers purchase call and data allowances upfront, rather than through a pay-monthly contract.

"If there is another price hike, like the one we saw in December, Jio is likely to come out the winner due to its prepaid model as the hike will impact postpaid subscribers but prepaid – which typically account for the bulk – will flock to an operator that can offer affordable deals," Faisal Kawoosa, founder and analyst at TechArc said.

Roughly 8% of subscribers in India are in contract, with the remainder on prepaid plans, according to TechArc's estimates.

Vodafone Idea's prepaid subscribers accounted for 92.4% of its total, according to its latest earnings. It and Reliance Jio target low-income customers, Nitin Mangal, an independent telecom analyst said.

The experts said Reliance Jio's "extensive war chest" and leading market share position will also help it withstand any changes the telco industry faces.

"Jio has always been cash-rich. They started the pricing war, amassed subscribers quickly which boosted their balance sheet," said Pranav Bhavsar, equity analyst at ASA Capital Management.

As of Dec. 31, 2019, Reliance Jio was India’s top wireless broadband service provider by subscribers with 370.02 million, followed by Bharti Airtel with 137.98 million and Vodafone Idea with 118.43 million, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s Feb. 25 report. Reliance Jio also held 56.03% of the market share of broadband services, topping Bharti Aritel's 21.26% and Vodafone Idea's 17.89%.

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Jio is also best placed to lead the capex-intensive rollout of next-generation wireless service 5G in India, thanks to its healthy balance sheet, Kawoosa said.

"Airtel does not have an extensive 4G network — its wireline network is bigger — and therefore will have to pay more in upgrade investments," he added.

According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India report, Bharti Airtel's market share of wireline subscribers was 20.52%, significantly higher than Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea at 5% and 1.91%, respectively. The two public operators, BSNL and MTNL, dominated the wireline sector with a combined market share of 60.47%.

The coronavirus outbreak, which prompted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to announce a 21-day shutdown last week, is unlikely to see the government defer Vodafone Idea's outstanding payments, experts said.

In the short term, Mangal said the pandemic may affect the number of mobile subscribers in the country as "most of the lower, middle-class or daily wage workers have lost their income [for the duration of the shutdown]."