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Andy Mukherjee

Nationalizing Vodafone JV May Be India’s Only Option

There’s no other way to prevent an Ambani-dominated duopoly settling over the world’s most painful telecoms market.

Vodafone Idea may be unable to keep the lights on much longer. 

Vodafone Idea may be unable to keep the lights on much longer. 

Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

The world’s cheapest data costs have done wonders for India by helping spread the benefits of the internet beyond a tiny, urban, affluent class. But there’s a problem: Successive governments have hounded telecom operators with outlandish financial demands. Now things have gone too far. Vodafone Idea Ltd., one of the three private-sector competitors left standing in what used to be a field of a dozen players, is very close to crumbling under the weight of its $30 billion debt. That will effectively turn the wireless market in the nation of 1.4 billion people into a duopoly.

Maybe not immediately, but the gains to consumers could be reversed because of lack of competition. (An international survey shows Indian data plans to still be highly affordable, though they’re no longer as inexpensive as the world-beating 9 cents per gigabyte last year.) The pace of digitization of the economy could slow. Avoiding this scenario calls for some creative thinking.