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BPL to buy out AT&T in cell venture

Mumbai, Dec. 3: BPL Mobile, the flagship firm for BPLís cellular business, said it has acquired the 49 per cent stake of AT&T, its foreign partner in BPL Mobile Cellular.

The deal marks the start of the consolidation in the cellular business after the new unified licences were issued.

Details of the acquisition were not known till late this evening. Most analysts reckon that AT&T has invested over Rs 740 crore ($150 million) over the last six years. This includes a recent infusion of Rs 200 crore ($40 million). Industry watchers say this is the sum that BPL could pay to buy the US telecom giantís shares.

ďThe acquisition of AT&Tís holding now gives us the flexibility to approach financially strong investors who are committed to investing in the Indian cellular market. This further demonstrates our commitment to being a strong long-term strategic player in the GSM wireless phone market,Ē a senior BPL Mobile official said.

Analysts say AT&Tís exit follows Bell Canadaís pull-out from Tata Cellular years ago. India is no longer AT&Tís strategic focus. Instead, it has its eyes glued to North America ó and its departure from BPL Mobile is part of its plan to palm off assets elsewhere in the world.

There are some who are not convinced with this reasoning. They say AT&T could be keen on saving its resources for Idea, the GSM mobile telephony venture it has jointly promoted along with the Birlas and Tatas.

Idea will require funds as it pushes into new circles like Mumbai. Industry watchers there could be no other reason for a company that recently invested $40 million in BPL Mobile to pack up its bags and move out. Surely, Idea is more important at this point of time.

BPL, on its part, would have looked for a new partner anyway. It could not live on with an ally that nurtured a rival (Idea). The conflict of interest would be overwhelming.

For BPL Mobile chief Rajeev Chandrashekhar, buying AT&Tís holding will mark another high point in a year when his efforts to achieve financial closure paid off.

BPL Mobile is the holding company for BPL Mobile Communications as well as BPL Mobile Cellular Limited.

BPL Mobile Communications offers mobile phone services in the metro circle of Mumbai and is a 74:26 joint venture between BPL Mobile and France Telecom.

BPL Mobile Cellular, from which AT&T is being bought out, operates in Maharashtra, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and Kerala. After todayís stake shuffle, the company plans to restructure holdings of others. It will also continue investments in network infrastructure and brand visibility, company officials said.

BPL Mobile aims to bring two million subscribers on board in the current financial year. It is targeting Rs 1,200 crore in revenues and Rs 450 crore in operating profits.

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