No.1 Indian telecom Bharti Airtel may be looking to buy Bangladesh's Warid Telecom, indicating a shift in focus to smaller targets after talks for a $24 billion merger with South Africa's MTN failed.
Bharti is set to buy a 70 percent stake in Warid, Bangladesh's fourth-biggest telecom company, the country's telecoms regulator said on Wednesday.
The UAE-based Dhabi Group, which controls Warid Telecom, sought approval from the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission for the sale on Sunday, commission Chairman Zia Ahmed said.
"Bharti initially intended to invest $300 million," he told Reuters, adding that a written proposal put forward by Dhabi did not mention the value of the deal.
Bangladesh's Daily Star reported the deal could be worth $900 million, citing Warid officials.
Bharti said it would keep evaluating international opportunities, but declined to comment on a possible deal to buy Warid, whose shareholders are Abu Dhabi Group and Bharti partner Singapore Telecommunications.
At 0730 GMT, shares in Bharti were up 1.9 percent at 322.65 rupees in a Mumbai market that was up 0.1 percent.
The news comes two-and-a-half months after talks between Bharti and MTN Group to create the world's third-largest mobile operator collapsed for the second time in just over a year over South Africa's reluctance to allow a flagship corporate to lose its national character.
Analysts and bankers had speculated Bharti would look to buy parts of another company's operations or a smaller firm after the failed MTN deal.
Any deal would probably exclude Warid's operations in Pakistan, India's neighbour and political rival, analysts have said.
Bangladesh's telecoms regulator will ask for details on the deal from the Warid next week, Zia said.
At the end of October, Warid had 2.79 million subscribers -- far fewer than Grameenphone, which is majority owned by Norway's Telenor. Orascom Telecom of Egypt's Banglalink and Telekom Malaysia's Aktel also operate in the country.
Bangladesh's fast-growing telecoms sector has been a magnet for investment by foreign operators, with Japan's NTT DoCoMo Ltd last year paying about $350 million for a 30 percent stake in No.3 cellphone carrier TM International (Bangladesh) Ltd, also known as Aktel.
Bharti, which has more than 100 million subscribers in India, is looking to replicate its staggering growth at home in other emerging markets, where scale is vital and penetration rates are low but rising fast.
Bangladesh's mobile sector has grown rapidly, with subscriber numbers reaching more than 51 million at end-October from 200,000 in 2001, helped by competitive tariffs, cheap handsets and steady economic growth.
Analysts predict the number of subscribers could top 70 million by 2011, nearly half the country's population of 150 million.
Warid started its Bangladesh operations in 2007.