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South African mobile operator MTN eyes Myanmar license

The logo of South Africa's MTN Group is seen on signage outside the company's headquarters in Johannesburg, May 27, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Hutch
The logo of South Africa's MTN Group is seen on signage outside the company's headquarters in Johannesburg, May 27, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Hutch

By Helen Nyambura-Mwaura

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - MTN Group , Africa's largest mobile phone company, is interested in a Myanmar operating license, which it expects will cost the winning bidder $200-$500 million in license fees.

The Johannesburg-based telecoms giant with operations in 21 nations in Africa and the Middle East posted a disappointing 2 percent rise in full-year profit on Wednesday as foreign currency losses eroded earnings from key markets like Iran.

MTN said some 90 companies had also expressed interest in Myanmar, but only two licenses would be awarded in June.

The south east Asian country has a population of about 60 million and a mobile penetration of less than 5 percent, making it an excellent opportunity, Chief Executive Sifiso Dabengwa told journalists after an earnings presentation.

"This is really a one-off. This is a greenfield that every operator is interested in," he said.

"Any other opportunity in Asia or any other country would be looked upon on its merits," he added.

MTN has also received a license to provide Value Added Services - essentially all services other than standard voice calls - in Ethiopia, another populous country without much of a telecoms industry, Dabengwa said.

MTN would have to use infrastructure belonging to Ethiopia Telecom, the only mobile operator in the east African country.

The $36.6 billion company said it was not interested in bidding for Vivendi's 53 percent stake in Maroc Telecom , valued at nearly $6 billion.

"At the end of the day, valuation is the final determinant," Dabengwa told Reuters.

The company has $337 million in outstanding dividends in Syria, where the law MTN was registered under does not allow the repatriation of profits. MTN is also in talks with Iran's central bank to unlock another 1.191 billion rand ($131.5 million) tied up there, Dabengwa said.

DISAPPOINTING PROFIT

MTN said currency swings weighed on earnings in the year to end-December, particularly the depreciation of the Syrian pound, Iranian rial and Sudanese pound.

Headline earnings - the main measure of profit in South Africa that excludes certain one-time items - came in at 1,089.1 cents from 1,068.6 cents in the previous year. Reuters StarMine estimated a 14 percent jump to 1,218 cents.

The company increased subscribers by 15 percent to 189.3 million and hopes to raise this by 21 million this year. It plans 28.2 billion rand in capital expenditure this year, a 6 percent decline from the previous year.

MTN declared a year-end dividend of 503 cents, from 476 cents in the previous year and said it was changing its dividend policy, aiming to increase dividends by as much as 15 percent.

MTN is facing a $4.2 billion lawsuit in a U.S. court for allegedly bribing officials to receive its Iranian license, which was initially awarded to rival Turkcell .

An MTN-sponsored investigation into the allegations dismissed the claims as "a fabric of lies, distortions and inventions", but the U.S. legal proceedings are awaiting a verdict on whether the Washington court has jurisdiction.

MTN shares fell 1.3 percent at 1244 GMT, compared with a 0.2 percent drop in Johannesburg's Top-40 index <.JTOPI>. ($1 = 9.0552 South African rand)

(Editing by Helen Massy-Beresford)

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