Hutchison Telecommunications International, a unit of Hutchison Whampoa, began taking bids for its Indian telecommunications subsidiary last night in a deal that has been valued as high as US$18 billion, market sources said. Vodafone Group, the world's largest mobile telephone company, and Reliance Communications, India's second-largest mobile operator, are the favoured bidders. Essar Group, an Indian conglomerate whose businesses range from shipping to energy and telecommunications, and Hinduja Group, an Indian conglomerate active in the oil, media and banking sectors, have also indicated their intent to bid for the assets. The bidders had still not finalised how they would finance the deal if they won, sources said, adding that the Hutchison Telecom board would meet tomorrow to discuss the bids. 'The sell side came out and asked 'how long do you need until you're at a final, final commitment' and the consensus was by the middle of the week given the size of the commitment needed,' said one banker providing financing. 'The funds are there and ready to commit but now it's down to the details and when you get down to that level it takes time.' Hutchison Telecom intended to identify a preferred bidder by Lunar New Year, sources said. Hutchison Whampoa spokeswoman Laura Cheung declined to comment. Hutchison Telecom holds 67 per cent of Hutchison Essar, India's fourth-largest mobile telephone company by subscribers that has been valued at US$14 billion and US$18 billion. Essar Group holds the remainder. Hutchison Essar is drawing buyers as the number of mobile subscribers in India is expected to surge amid rising incomes and strong economic growth. The large number of young people, who are more receptive to third-generation mobile telephones, also looks appealing to mobile firms aiming to expand in India. 'Hutchison Essar represents a high-quality asset and a rare opportunity to own a piece of India's compelling telecom growth story ... commanding a leading market share in the metropolitan cities and the fourth-largest position on a pan-national basis,' Fitch Ratings said in a report issued last night. It expects the company to benefit from the industry's growth, which will 'remain strong in view of the still low penetration rates'.