The government opened a pre-qualification period in November, through which it invited parties interested in acquiring shares in Sri Lanka Telecom to come forward. It has now revealed that it received applications from a trio of players: Jio Platforms, Gortune International Investment Holding/Capital Alliance Ltd, and Pettigo Comercio International/NDB Investment Bank.

Naturally, it’s the appearance of Jio Platforms on the list that is drawing the most interest.

International expansion has always been part of Jio Platforms’ business plan. The firm has developed a 5G platform – including radio and core network, cloud infrastructure and cloud native OSS platforms – that it aims to sell to operators outside of India. But there has been little hint, until now, that the firm would look to buy into an overseas telco. Clearly it sees an opportunity in neighbouring Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan government has been working on privatisation plans for some time. It aims to sell off just over half of Sri Lanka Telecom – 50.23% to be precise – in fairly short order. Despite requests for deadlines to be pushed back, it opened applications lodged under the Request for Qualification (RFQ) process on 12 January as scheduled and there’s no reason at this stage to think that it will not stick to its plan to issue an RFP (Request for Proposal) this quarter. It is due to choose the successful bidder in Q2.

We have no hint yet as to which way the competition will go. The government made no comment on the three would-be pre-qualified bidders, other than to name them and to confirm that it will now examine their applications.

Jio Platforms should be in a fairly strong position, backed as it is by deep-pocketed Reliance Industries and possessing some credible expertise in the telecoms industry. The pre-qualification documents show that owning and operating a large telco, of 10 million customers or more, is not a requirement to participate in the sale process, but it is preferred. As the parent company of Reliance Jio Infocomm, which has taken the Indian telecoms market by storm in the past few years and as of last count had a mobile customer base in excess of 450 million, Jio Platforms certainly fits the bill.

It’s not the only one though.

Pettigo Comercio International is part of Lyca Group and owns various trademarks associated with the company. Gortune International, meanwhile, is a Chinese investment group that certainly seems to fit with the government’s requirement for experience in owning and operating a company of similar size and complexity to Sri Lanka Telecom.

The telco has 8.5 million fixed and mobile customers, according to the documents released when the government launched the pre-qualification process, as well as nationwide network coverage in fibre, copper and LTE. It also has a significant backbone network, subsea cable connections, and data centres and cloud platforms.

Its Mobitel unit is one of four mobile operators in Sri Lanka, the other three being Bharti Airtel, Dialog Axiata and Hutchison. With all four competing for the attention of a population of just over 22 million, according to the World Bank, and many Sri Lankans owning multiple SIMs, it’s not an easy market to tap into as a new investor. But there is clearly an opportunity there, and the three would-be newcomers, Jio Platforms included, have doubtless done their homework. We’ll see how this one plays out over the next few months.

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