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Anil Ambani Upping RComm Stake As Tower Talks Progress

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Anil Ambani plans to increase his stake in Reliance Communications as the debt-laden telecoms company founded by his family edges towards a sale of its phone tower unit after a year of trying.

Reliance Comm has hired UBS and sought $5 billion for its 95-percent stake in its Reliance Infratel tower unit, sources told Reuters in August, as the country's No.2 mobile phone carrier by subscribers struggles with its more than $7 billion net debt.

But potential bidders had expressed concern about Reliance's valuation being at least $1 billion too high, the sources had said.

"When we hopefully conclude the Reliance Infratel transaction, it will be the largest private equity transaction in the history of this country," Ambani, India's eighth richest man according to Forbes, told a packed annual meeting of shareholders on Tuesday.

Sources had previously said UBS had reached out to US companies American Tower and Crown Castle International, India's Viom Networks and UAE's Etisalat on the tower sale.

The bank had also contacted private-equity firms Carlyle, Apax Partners and Blackstone, the sources said.

Reliance Communications is battling amid a fast-growing but ferociously competitive Indian cellular market as low call prices and high operational costs squeeze margins.

Eight straight quarters of falling profits and failed attempts to raise cash are eroding investor confidence in the company, whose stock has lost 44 percent of its value so far this year, leaving the company valued at $3.4 billion.

Seeking to boost confidence in the company, Ambani said Reliance Comm's founders -- largely himself, his family and companies controlled by him -- would raise their stake in the company to 75 percent, from 67.9 percent at the end of June, without giving a time frame.

"The market valuation is very low, and there is every reason for the promoter to raise stake in his company," Manish Sonthalia, a fund manager at Motilal Oswal Asset Management.

"It is also an indication to the market that the stock is undervalued, and rightly so. Even at replacement cost, Reliance Comm is certainly worth more than this," he said.

Shares in the company extended their gains to as much as 4.9 percent following the news. The stock is the fourth-worst performing stock in the 50-share NSE Nifty Index this year.

Debt Reduction Focus
"The positive thing here is at least they are concerned about the debt and making efforts to reduce debt," said R.K. Gupta, managing director at Taurus Asset Management in New Delhi, of Ambani's comments.

This is not Reliance Comm's first attempt at raising cash and cutting debt.

Last year, the company tried to sell a 26-percent stake in itself to pare debt, but found no takers. A plan to float its tower unit in an initial public offering also failed to take off and a deal to merge its tower arm with a rival collapsed.

But Ambani expressed optimism on Tuesday.

"We are in an advanced stage of negotiations with a number of consortiums who have expressed great interest in this very valuable asset and I'm sure that we will be able to move forward expeditiously," he said.

"I am committed and the company is committed to ensure our debt levels are substantially reduced," he said.

Reliance Infratel has more than 50,000 telecoms towers. A senior company executive said last month they expected a sale of the unit to almost halve the company's current debt burden.

"If the tower business goes away, that would reduce a chunk of their debt, and that is very important in determining the turnaround for the whole company," said Motilal's Sonthalia.

(Reuters)