Google’s Bharti stake levels India’s playing field

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An employee works at a billing counter inside a Bharti Airtel store in New Delhi, India April 20, 2016.

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MUMBAI, Jan 28 (Reuters Breakingviews) - There’s but one way to take on Reliance Industries’ (RELI.NS) reputation as the best telecom operator in India: get Alphabet's (GOOGL.O) validation. The search company’s Google fund is spending $700 million on new shares amounting to 1.2% of Bharti Airtel (BRTI.NS), the country’s second biggest operator by subscribers. The pair will also work together to make smartphones affordable so they can tap hundreds of millions of new users, and collaborate on cloud and 5G innovations.

The investment from the $1.7 trillion U.S. tech giant validates Bharti’s role as a digital pioneer in a market where mobile phones double as computers and televisions. But it also makes Mukesh Ambani’s $211 billion Reliance Industries look slightly less special. While the investment is a mere 15% of Google’s 2020 outlay on a stake in Reliance’s Jio Platforms, the larger Indian rival with whom Google already closely collaborates, it helps to narrow a perceptions gap where Bharti is widely viewed as a humdrum phone company and Reliance as a hot tech stock. Of course, Google has a seat on Jio’s board. That level of association is something Bharti may still aspire to. (By Una Galani)

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(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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Editing by Lauren Silva Laughlin and Pranav Kiran

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