* World's No.3 operator explores merger, tower assets sale
* Eyes float of minority stake in African unit
* Deals come amid tough competition, industry consolidation
* To commit $3-$4 bln to annual capex as 5G looms
By Douglas Busvine
BARCELONA, Feb 28 (Reuters) - India's Bharti Airtel is exploring merger and sale options for its mobile towers businesses as Chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal seeks to get out of the infrastructure game and focus on connectivity.
Airtel, the world's No.3 mobile operator by subscribers, also wants to float a minority stake in its African operations and sees the London Stock Exchange as a potentially attractive venue.
Mittal, briefing reporters at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Wednesday, backed the lead set by telcos in the United States, now being followed in Europe, for specialists to roll up and run mobile tower assets.
"Our position is very clear: towers are steel and concrete. They are not the domain of mobile companies," said the 60-year-old Mittal, whose family fortune Forbes Magazine puts at $8.8 billion.
His move to shed non-core assets follows the blockbuster entry into the Indian market by Mukesh Ambani's Reliance Jio that has forced rivals to merge, creating a three big players in the country of 1.3 billion people.
Indian operators, despite their strapped finances, will need to prepare for the launch of fifth-generation services, and Mittal said he expected Bharti Airtel to continue to commit $3-$4 billion a year to capex.
India will roll out 5G "in step" with other parts of the world, he said, with first use cases likely to be industry applications, and in fixed-line and machine-to-machine communication.
Bharti Airtel controls Bharti Infratel Ltd, and also owns 42 percent stake in Indus Towers Ltd, India's largest mobile infrastructure company with nearly 123,000 towers.
Bharti Infratel said last October it was considering buying the rest of Indus that is owned by competitors Vodafone India and Idea Cellular, which are in the process of merging.
Mittal said he had a flexible approach to exiting the towers business, and had also received board approval to pursue the alternative of reducing Bharti's stake in Infratel to below majority control.
"We have gone down from 100 percent to 53 percent. And our board has decided: if you want to go and sell, then sell," said Mittal, who also chairs the GSMA industry group that hosts the annual Barcelona gathering.
Bharti Airtel, present in 20 countries, said in mid-February that it was exploring an initial public offering for Bharti Airtel International (Netherlands) B.V. (BAIN), the holding company that owns its African interests.
A listing, if it does happen, would only be of a minority stake, said Mittal: "It will remain a Bharti subsidiary. That means we are staying (in Africa)."
Vice-Chairman Akhil Gupta said London was a potentially good venue but that Bharti would rely on the advice of investment bankers, yet to be appointed for the deal, before making up its mind.
Bank of America Merrill Lynch has said BAIN could be valued at an enterprise value of $6.6 billion, or six times earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA). Gupta said he was looking for a higher price.
"I think we should be much more, because we should be at $1.2 billion of EBITDA by the time (of the float)," he said. "But the markets will decide all this." (Reporting by Douglas Busvine. Editing by Jane Merriman)