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Friday, September 14, 2012

Russia's Sistema to buy Aircel for $3 billion

Russia's Sistema a joint stock financial corporation
MUMBAI: Russia's Sistema JSFC is close to acquiring a controlling stake in Aircel Communications for around $3 billion (Rs 16,000-17,000 crore), making this one of the largest transactions in the telecom sector since Vodafone bought Hutchison Essar for $11.7 billion in 2007.

Two persons familiar with the development said Sistema would buy into Aircel's parent company based overseas with rights to have the Indian arm transferred to it after an ongoing restructuring process is completed. Malaysia's Maxis Communications owns 74% stake in Aircel through multiple entities, which are being consolidated into a single company.

Aircel's spokesman said the company was not aware of such a development. The Russian company's Indian arm, Sistema Shyam TeleServices, said it believed the talk of engaging with other telecom service providers for a possible deal was motivated. "The immediate priority is to seek clarity on spectrum-related regulations from the government and also look at the outcome of the curative petition filed in the Supreme Court," said a company spokesman.

An email sent to Sistema's global headquarters in Moscow went unanswered.

But both the persons familiar with the discussions said the transaction could be announced shortly. ET had earlier reported that Maxis and Sistema were in preliminary discussions.

If the deal happens, it will end the uncertainty about Sistema's future in India and give it the ownership of a national operator with close to 65 million subscribers. The Russian company, which operates mobile services on CDMA technology in India, lost its licence after the Supreme Court revoked all permits granted by former telecom minister A Raja in 2008.

Sistema has the option of participating in the upcoming airwaves auctions, but a telecom analyst said it made more sense to buy a functioning company with an existing user base. However, as Aircel operates on the GSM platform, it won't be possible for the Russian company to switch its existing 16.3 million customers since CDMA handsets don't work on GSM networks. It will have to bag fresh CDMA airwaves if it wishes to continue with its existing subscribers.

One of the persons familiar with the discussions said the transaction was being structured in such a manner that it would enable Sistema's Indian arm to bid for CDMA airwaves. While the M&A guidelines in the telecom sector prevent a company from owning more than 10% stake in another operator, this norm will not be applicable in this case as the Russian company will buy the shares of the overseas holding company of Aircel.

For Maxis, an exit from Aircel will end its somewhat stormy association with India. The company has been upset with the way the investigating agencies had dragged its billionaire-owner T Ananda Krishnan and other top officials into the probe surrounding the circumstances under which the Malaysian company acquired Aircel from serial entrepreneur C Sivasankaran for $1.8 billion in 2005. The Central Bureau of Investigation is probing Sivasankaran's charge that he was pressurised to sell Aircel to Maxis by former telecom minister Dayanadhi Maran and that the Malaysian company's subsidiary made a quid pro quo investment of Rs 550 crore in a DTH company owned by the Maran family in return for the ex-minister's role in the Aircel transaction. Maran and Maxis have vehemently denied all wrongdoing.

Krishnan's holding company, Binariang GSM, which owns a 75% stake in Maxis, had last December told a Malaysian rating agency that it was trying to 'decouple' Aircel from the group as the Indian company's debt was affecting the Malaysian group's credit rating. "This is expected to be concluded in the next nine months. Should the restructuring exercise not be completed within the suggested timeframe, the ratings of the Sukuk (bonds) will have to be reassessed," the agency had said in a report dated December 23. While Maxis and associate entities own 74% in Aircel, Suneeta Reddy, joint managing director of the Chennai-based Apollo Hospitals%, and her husband P Dwarakanath Reddy own the remaining 26% through Sindhya Securities and Investments.

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