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Debt-laden Aircel to file for bankruptcy at NCLT

Malaysian parent company Maxis had earlier proposed a cash infusion to support the debt-laden company but has pulled the plug, said one of the people.

Updated: Feb 19, 2018, 09.41 AM IST
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aircel
Aircel had recently stopped services in six circles to focus on its better performing ones.
MUMBAI | HYDERABAD: Telecom company Aircel will shortly file for bankruptcy at the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) and its board has been dissolved ahead of the move, said two people aware of the matter. That will mark the demise of the last small mobile phone company, leaving just four main non-state ones —soon to be three after a merger.

Malaysian parent company Maxis, run by businessman Ananda Krishnan, had earlier proposed a cash infusion to support the debt-laden company but has pulled the plug, said one of the people.

The company has been in negotiations with lenders since September but has failed to hammer out a recast of its Rs 15,500 crore debt.

“There is no cash to run the business and no visibility to free any more up,” said another person, adding that the company is likely to stop paying salaries by the end of the week.

Aircel declined to comment.

State Bank of India, which heads the group of lenders, didn’t respond to queries.

Bankers were Confident of Recovering Money
The decision was precipitated by the Reserve Bank of India scrapping all debt revamp schemes in favour of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code and seeking to hasten resolution, one of the people said.

Having not made payments since September, banks can no longer restructure Aircel without provisioning for its debt.

They are currently in the process of nominating members to a new board and an insolvency professional to run the process. The application to NCLT is expected to be made in a few days.

The lenders are scheduled to meet on Tuesday to decide on appointments and the future course of action.

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The company generates monthly revenue of about Rs 400 crore, of which Rs 100 crore is accounted for by termination charges to other operators and Rs 280 crore is for vendors and network uptime, said a person familiar with the numbers. The rest is for licence fees, taxes, and interest payments. Idea Cellular recently snapped interconnect services with Aircel with dues of Rs 60 crore for three months.

Aircel had recently stopped services in six circles to focus on its better performing ones. It will be the fourth company to stop services after Reliance Jio Infocomm launched services in September 2016, undercutting tariffs and nearly halving revenue realisations for the industry. Norway-based Telenor is transferring its assets to Bharti Airtel for almost no charge. Bharti Airtel is also taking over the wireless business of Tata Teleservices. The wireless assets of Reliance Communications are being acquired by Jio.

Bankers had been confident about recovering money from Aircel because of the support from its Malaysian parent, as were vendors.

A recent document submitted by bankers in court showed that Maxis had issued letters of comfort to bankers that it would meet any cash shortfall up to Rs 500 crore and pay licence fees for circles to the tune of another Rs 500 crore should it be needed.

“That limit has long since been met,” said one of the two people.

LEGAL BATTLES

Those hit will be 5,000 employees, vendors and partners, including tower operators GTL Infra, Bharti Infratel, Indus Towers and ATC. Aircel currently leases more than 40,000 towers across all the companies. Some of them are already locked in legal battles with Aircel to recover dues. Network management vendors include Ericsson, Nokia and ZTE, which are negotiating recovery of dues from September onward, said one of the two people.

Indus Towers, Bharti Infratel, Ericsson and Nokia declined to comment. The others didn’t respond to queries. Aircel also uses outsourced technology and call centre services that have been unpaid since September. It is unsure how the NCLT will prioritise these payments, the person said.

In July 2016, before the launch of Jio, 79% of Aircel’s subscribers were active on the network and the company -had a quarterly operating profit of Rs 120 crore. However, Aircel bled during the six months that Jio offered free services starting September 2016. It has also been losing customers. Aircel had nearly 85 million users at the end of December, having lost more than 2.5 million users in one month.

“We have brought our prices to less than half, but it is still a hard sell in the face of free service,” a key regional executive had told ET in early 2017.

By July 2017, after Jio first started charging for its services, Aircel’s operating profit had dropped to Rs 5 crore.

By December 2017, Aircel’s active customers fell to 57% at nearly half the average revenue per person and a quarterly operating loss of Rs 120 crore.

The company had initiated talks for a merger with Reliance Communciations, an operator that was also languishing in same circumstances. However, delays in approvals and a Supreme Court order preventing a sale of Aircel’s spectrum frustrated the merger.

When it was called off, Aircel went to its lenders for a restructuring.

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