Bharti Airtel is close to selling its operations in Sri Lanka to UAE-based telecom company Etisalat.

The two companies have been negotiating for over five months now and have agreed on the broad contours of the deal.

Manoj Kohli, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer (International) and in-charge of the company’s operations in Africa, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, declined to comment.

Sources close to the company, however, said Kohli is set to return to India in January and the deal could be announced before that.

Bharti Airtel had announced the launch of its Sri Lanka operations in 2009 but the company has not been able to make inroads in terms of market share, with just under two million users. Airtel has invested over $300 million to roll out services in Sri Lanka but continues to make losses.

The company had earlier lamented about unfair regulations in Sri Lanka as they did not allow new players to be flexible with tariffs. The company had said it was facing serious interference on issues related to frequencies. Airtel did not participate in the auctions held earlier this year for 4G spectrum, which indicated that it did not have long-term plans for the Lankan market.

Etisalat, on the other hand, is currently the third largest player with nearly five million subscribers.

Acquiring Airtel’s operations would help Etisalat move up the ranking.

Bharti Airtel has followed a different strategy in Bangladesh. It acquired a 70 per cent stake in Warid Telecom in January 2010.

Earlier this year, it picked up the 30 per cent it did not own in the Warid Group’s telecom operations in that country.

(This article was published on December 16, 2013)
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