Months of speculative buying in shares of Pakistan Telecommunications Corporation will come to a head on Friday with potential foreign investors including Singapore Telecom expected to file preliminary bids for a 26 per cent stake in the state-owned company.

Prospective investors have been asked to send expressions of interest to the government, which wants to complete the sale and transfer management of the company to the new investor by June this year.

After almost a decade of delays, anticipation of the deal is running high. The company's share price has risen more than 30 per cent since October.

Interest in the company intensified after analysts forecast the net worth of the PTCL stake at up to US$1.6bn, a substantial jump from the government's own figure of US$1bn-US$1.2bn just five years ago.

Privatisation commission officials said prospective investors, aside from Singapore Telecom, included Telekom Malaysia, Millicom the Luxembourg-based company that has investments in Pakistani cellular phone operator Mobilink MTN of South Africa, Etisalaat of the UAE, Saudi Arabi's Oger business group, a group of investors from Kuwait and a Pakistani business based in Karachi.

?We are confident that we are on to something good,? said Hafeez Sheikh, chairman of the privatisation commission, in an interview with the FT. ?There seems to be a lot of interest in PTCL.?

Analysts said prospective investors were attracted not just by PTCL's fixed-line network with about 5m telephone connections. They were also drawn by PTCL's mobile phone operator Ufone. ?Anyone who buys PTCL would have ownership of Ufone and this makes it a very attractive proposition,? said Murad Ansari, chief analyst at Karachi's Khadim Ali Shah Bukhari brokerage house.

Mr Ansari said the number of Pakistan's mobile phone users is likely to swell to 7m in about two years from just 2m users three years ago.

Government officials, however, do not hide their disappointment over the absence of large global telecom operators from PTCL's list of prospective buyers.

This is believed to be largely because of continued worries among western companies over Pakistan's internal security conditions and periodic political instability.

Among the difficult challenges faced by a new management, would be tackling the bloated workforce of PTCL, estimated to be more than 60,000. Telecom analysts say this should be cut sharply to improve efficiency.

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