With Amazon Deal, Airtel Poses Rising Challenge To Mukesh Ambani’s Jio

Bharti Airtel Ltd. is the best performer on India’s stocks benchmark this year, jumping 26 per cent and reaching a record on May 19

Months after billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s upstart wireless carrier swept into the No. 1 spot, a trounced rival is mounting a comeback, and investors are loving it. Bharti Airtel Ltd. is the best performer on India’s stocks benchmark this year, jumping 26 per cent and reaching a record on May 19, amid optimism the carrier will continue to attract bigger-spending users. The stock surged Thursday in Mumbai after Reuters reported Amazon.com Inc. was in early talks to buy a stake of at least $2 billion.

The comeback is a sharp turnaround for billionaire Sunil Mittal after grueling competition with Ambani’s Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd. knocked Airtel off its perch in the world’s second-biggest wireless market by users. Mittal’s company reported a record loss last fiscal year, while a shock court order to pay $3 billion in back fees forced the operator to raise capital. Another rival — Vodafone Idea Ltd. — is struggling to survive under a pile of debt.

“The market assumed Bharti Airtel would take months to recover from the onslaught of Reliance Jio,” said Arun Kejriwal, director at KRIS, an investment advisory firm in Mumbai. “But they raised funds from the market and have moved quickly to take advantage of the duopolistic nature of Indian telecom landscape.”

Jio and former No. 1 Airtel have battled over India’s telecom market since 2016, when Ambani pushed his way in with a 4G service that offered free calls and cheap data packages. That war of attrition prompted money-losing carriers to exit or merge with others, leaving only three non-state carriers, from about a dozen a few years ago.

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