Norwegian-based Telenor ASA, the primary shareholder in GrameenPhone in Bangladesh with operations in Pakistan, Malaysia and Thailand, bought a 60% stake in India’s Unitech Wireless at the end of 2008. The deal is expected to be finalized in Q1 of 2009.
Analysts were initally quite critical of the deal, as Unitech has no network to speak of, and Telenor’s stock dipped on the announcement. However, Unitech Wireless holds licenses for all 22 mobile regions of India–the world’s 2nd biggest market after China–which would appear to be a valuable asset even in a very competitive market. Consider that a few years ago, Telenor spent $1.9 billion to buy a license in Serbia! Coupled with Telenor’s experience and success in South and Southeast Asia, an Indian play of this magnitude makes long-term strategic sense.
Telenor says the deal is contingent on sharing infrastructure, perhaps eyeing the 30,000-50,000 cell towers of its entrenched competitors. While unstated, Telenor is likely looking to the new company Indus Towers, started by Bharti, Vodafone Essar, and Idea Cellular, to share network assets.
Since the announcement, Telenor has indicated it will not pay shareholder dividends in 2008 or 2009, and will take out a three-year loan to pay for its investment. Telenor’s share price, which lost 64% of its value in 2008, has recovered somewhat in early 2009 trading.