Aircel has been in talks with Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio for a service tie-up, but the telco’s ability to make payments is a hurdle
Aircel, the troubled mobile phone operator that has filed for bankruptcy protection, is in talks with investors for strategic financing and is negotiating with Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio Infocomm for intra-circle roaming pacts.
Discussions are also underway with a key vendor to keep its network running and preserve the company’s value, said two people familiar with the developments. “As a service company, Aircel’s customers and employees are at the heart of the company’s value,” one person said.
If the network falters, the company — burdened with debt of Rs 15,500 crore — will lose customers and employees and its value will erode.
Sustaining the company’s value is critical if the insolvency petition filed on Wednesday is accepted because it will allow the interim resolution professional to find bidders for the telco with a view to continue operations for the long term and repay lenders as well.
Intense competition in India’s telecom market has hurt operators including Aircel, which is losing customers, facing partial network shutdowns and going through a cash crunch.
Meanwhile, Aircel’s lenders, which had stopped providing money to the telco, approved the release of funds from a previously frozen account to make some working capital payments, one person said.
The Chennai-based operator, majority owned by Malaysia’s Maxis, filed for bankruptcy in the National Company Law Tribunal after over four months of attempts to settle the matter with lenders.
Banks had finally accepted the company’s request to undertake strategic debt restructuring, when the Reserve Bank of India scrapped loan recast schemes and left Aircel with no option other than filing for bankruptcy.
Aircel is already in talks with telecom tower partner GTL Infrastructure, which shut part of the carrier’s network for non-payment of dues. “Aircel is actively talking to bring the network back online. Once that happens, there is hope of preserving the valuable average revenue per user,” the second person said.
“We are committed to delivering high uptime and quality services to all our customers, including Aircel,” a GTL spokesman said. “We continue to remain in dialogue with them to ascertain the fate of all the outstanding issues, including receipts of our payments and how to assist them to resolve their current challenges.”
Idea Cellular and Vodafone India have stopped the flow of calls from Aircel subscribers to their users because the telco hasn’t paid them termination fees. A person familiar with the matter estimated Aircel’s outgo towards call termination at Rs 100 crore a month.
Aircel has been in talks with Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio for a service tie-up, but the telco’s ability to make payments is a hurdle. The insolvency proceedings may see Bharti Airtel and Jio interested in Aircel’s assets.
Jio agreed in December to buy the assets of Reliance Communications under a similar debt recast programme.
After the competitive onslaught released by Jio since September 2016, Aircel’s operating profit of Rs 120 crore has slipped to an operating loss of an equivalent amount in December. In addition, Maxis promoter T Ananda Krishnan has faced a corruption charge since 2010.
Aircel’s attempted merger with RCom last year came undone after delays in regulatory approvals due to legal hurdles.
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