IN 2022, THE TELECOM NETWORK WILL START TO SHIFT INTO SPACE”
Business Today|January 24, 2021
It’s been a bloodbath in the Indian telecommunications sector but Sunil Bharti Mittal, Founder and Chairman, Bharti Enterprises, put up a formidable fight. In a tell-all conversation with India Today Group Editorial Director Raj Chengappa and Deputy Editor Shwweta Punj, Mittal talks about how the pricing war unleashed by Reliance Jio is badgering the sector; how Bharti Airtel is inching back into the saddle of profitability and why Budget 2021/22 should focus on those at the margins and not on corporate tax cuts.
Raj Chengappa and Shwweta Punj
You have stayed focussed on telecom. Are you thinking of getting into providing content and other such services?

There is no service provided by a telecom company in the world which Airtel does not provide. Yes, we don’t produce our own content. We don’t have our own studios but we have tie-ups — Amazon, Netflix, Zee5. We will never be good at doing stuff that others do better than us. A classic case and I can reveal it today is the AT&T-Time Warner acquisition. When that happened, I straight away spoke to the AT&T CEO. He said the world has changed, smartphones have come and you will be able to groom content for mobile phone screens.

He told me he would ensure that Time Warner and AT&T are hundred miles away, in terms of no-interference. But once you take over a company, the acquirer starts to put his people. That acquisition hasn’t gone down well is the only example I can give you of a telecom company going for a big bet in merging together what you call a platform kind of activity. I think the jury is out, and I am yet to see one case which has succeeded globally.

Reliance Jio is a platform. It is into e-commerce, it is also selling mobile phones. What do you think of such a model?

He has different businesses — e-commerce, retail and telecom. They are businesses with different shareholdings. If we confine to the Jio platform and Reliance Jio telecommunications, there is nothing that we are not giving to our customer today that they are giving. Google works with us on multiple fronts. Amazon and we are very tightly stitched together. There is nothing that we don’t have.

It seems near impossible to have a conversation without a call drop. Why is that still persisting?

Call qualities have fairly advanced because most calls are not going to regular circuits. They are more or less on data pipes. If you have a smartphone, 99.9 per cent you will be going on data pipes to make your call on circuit switching. We are seeing tremendous improvement. Statistics tell us now there is a rare case of call drop.

What are the big lessons from Covid? What big changes do you expect in 2021 both globally and in India?

Telecom emerged as a hero industry during the pandemic. Airtel and our competitors stepped up to the job. The traffic pattern shifted from offices to homes within days. The way traffic surged, networks would have normally collapsed. But our people were out on the streets with complete disregard for what could happen to their health. In many places, electricity was a problem. I would say this has been a game-changer, it accelerated the digital world and as Nandan Nilekani rightly said what could have happened in years happened in weeks… and it is true.

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