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India to defer spectrum fees to help ailing telcos

New Delhi

INDIA will defer spectrum payments due from telecommunications companies for two years to help an industry ravaged by a years-long price war, mounting debt and a court decision last month demanding US$13 billion in overdue fees.

The moratorium will be for two years beginning in April 2020, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told reporters after a cabinet meeting in New Delhi on Wednesday. Interest as stipulated in airwave auctions will continue to be paid, she said.

The proposal was recommended by a panel of senior Indian bureaucrats under Prime Minister Narendra Modi to help wireless carriers the government estimates owe more than US$20 billion in licence fees and spectrum charges.

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The relief will be worth as much as 450 billion rupees (S$8.54 billion) and the panel will continue to discuss other measures to help the industry, an official told reporters.

Mr Modi intends to help preserve the survivors in a telecommunications industry that has shrunk from a dozen wireless operators a couple of years back to just three private-sector firms.

Carriers that had flocked to India's fast-growing market were led to merge or quit the business after Reliance Jio Infocomm, led by billionaire Mukesh Ambani, spurred an intense price war at its launch in 2016.

The relief on fees comes after Vodafone Idea posted the worst quarterly loss in India's corporate history earlier this month and Bharti Airtel logged a record deficit for the September quarter.

Jio, which overtook both companies and became the top carrier by subscribers this year, had argued against government action to help Vodafone Group Plc's Indian venture and Bharti, which is backed by billionaire Sunil Mittal and Singapore's Singtel.

Expectations of government help and plans by carriers to raise prices sparked a rally in shares of Vodafone Idea, which more than doubled in price over the past four trading days in Mumbai. Bharti also climbed, while Jio parent Reliance Industries jumped to a record.

The two-year moratorium follows requests by both companies for relief after the Supreme Court of India ordered the nation's carriers to pay about US$13 billion combined, mostly licence and spectrum fees.

The ruling was over a years-long dispute about how the fees should be calculated, leaving the amounts due to accumulate over the years.

The court decision left Vodafone Idea owing about US$4 billion and Bharti about US$3 billion, while Jio was stuck with a bill of only US$130 million, given it started in 2016. BLOOMBERG