Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Can MTNL and BSNL be salvaged?

I happened to look at the websites of MTNL and BSNL for seeking out their annual reports and financials. Long ago, I don't remember exactly when I concluded that it is a waste to invest in public sector telecom companies - MTNL (BSNL is not listed). It was so far back in antiquity that I thought may be it is time to revisit the decision. After all MTNL is a nav-ratna company - meaning it is prized Government PSU. Alas I was horribly wrong.

Where are the financials?
MTNL or Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited is listed for 20 years at least. But I could find only 2 annual reports. No quarterly information was available on the site. The website links to some other mtnl sites but the links on the site did not work.

The first rule of getting investor interest is to make all financial and operational data available. I was expecting to look at ARPUs of land lines, mobile, their satellite network subscribers etc. 

Shameful numbers! 
The two annual reports reveal pathetic situation. MTNL has employee cost 76% of revenues. Yes 76% [Seventy-Six] - no it is not a typo. The report talks of legacy issues with the government employees who cannot be sacked and do not work. These numbers make BSNL cost structure of employee costs at 52% of revenue look respectable. 

As a comparable IDEA Cellular has employee expenditure of ~4% of Total revenue.

How to fix MTNL / BSNL?

So can these companies even be salvaged? I think we need radical reform.

  1. Disclose all information - no matter how ugly. Go back and disclose everything. Let us have ARPUs, Segment-wise, detailed costs as much drill-down as possible. From these numbers someone may be able to gather the strengths of the companies.
  2. Ground Realities - corruption and compromised staff: The sad reality is that the staff of MTNL works for private companies. They take bribes and ensure poor service quality thereby herding the customers in droves in the arms of private telecom service providers. I have also seen MTNL linesmen working for private land line operators in Mumbai. They take home dual incomes. 
  3. Staff Costs are too high: MTNL costs at 76% of revenues and BSNL are at 53% wheresa idea cellular is at 4%. There cannot be any rational justification for this mess. More than MTNL, the government of India should take a decision and remove this staff. It will be difficult for MTNL to bear the burden of this. Let the staff be transferred to some other productive work - which they are incapable of. Just pay them and let them go. At least they won't damage the government elsewhere.
  4. Asset sweating and location leverage: Both BSNL and MTNL have superb location from where they operate. These locations can work for telecom base stations, interconnection zones and network switches for all firms. Such operational asset sweating can release vital cash for operations.
  5. Good Telco - Bad Telcos solution:  Create a new listed Telecom entity - say National Telecom and sell MTNL and BSNL assets to that entity and order closure of MTNL and BSNL under Companies Act. There is no reason to have two telecom companies in the same business with different geographic coverage.
  6. Keep transparent pricing plans and decent customer service and customers will flock to PSUs. Those with customer service of private telcos will agree whole-heartedly. With complicated subscription plans and bill discrepancies private telcos are sitting ducks.
  7. Telecom-Internet-TV Fibre bundles: The current landscape allows for one state-owned voice-focussed player. After 5 years there wont be any such opportunity. However the PSU Telco will have to quickly shift to data and preferably internet and TV offerings together. It will be easier for this entity to operationalise this than other private operators.

If you let me run these two, I can make them profitable in 3 years.