20 June 2018
Ajay Chitkara, director & CEO, Airtel Global Business & Nxtra Data at Bharti Airtel, speaks to Natalie Bannerman about India’s largest telecommunications service provider’s investments in new development areas and how it’s keeping customers at the heart of it all
Our customers are looking to transform and digitise their
business," says Ajay Chitkara, director & CEO of global
voice and data business at Bharti Airtel. And it is for
precisely this reason why Airtel is actively expanding its
range of services and investing in new areas of
Seated in the Airtel meeting suite during ITW 2018, Chitkara
speaks to me about the next steps for the company and how its
recent announcements play into its wider strategy for
Airtel has just launched a new digital carrier platform
enabling global carriers to do wholesale voice business 'at the
click of a button’. The new digital platform
offers paperless sign-up, timely voice interconnects and
real-time traffic analytics for global carriers. "If you look
at how the industry is operating, almost all of it is moving
towards digitisation," explains Chitkara about the offering
launched in May. "The purpose of moving to the digital
platforms for one is speed. Another driver is that this is an
easy and seamless way for customers to interconnect with us.
Overall the platform gives us further transparency to the
customer, speed of execution and quality of service, so
it’s a win- win for both parties."
Though Chitkara is unable to talk about the projected
traction amongst Airtel’s customers for the new
platform, he does say that they always base their projected
customer engagement on the 80/20 principle indicating high
uptake of the new service. "So 80% of customers should come
onto this platform," he says.
Overall, Airtel is the largest mobile network operator in
India and the third largest in the world. With over 300 million
subscribers in the region, the company serves approximately
1600 enterprises and 200,000 small to medium-sized enterprises
(SMEs). Airtel is India’s largest
telecommunications service provider and has a global network of
2,50,000Rkm (of networking cable) covering 50 countries and 5
continents with 1,200 global carrier partnerships.
Capacity recently reported that India data usage grew five
times over the last year, and as result carries the
world’s most internet data traffic. Of the
estimated 2.1 Exabytes of data per month, it’s
fair to assume the majority of it is likely to travel across
Airtel’s network and therefore influence its
Talking about our story and its connection to Airtel,
Chikara said: "What we have noticed over the last two years is
that although all the data was previously through broadband,
now all data consumption is happening on your handheld device.
4G penetration in India has a lot to do with this given the
proliferation of both - devices and content."
"We are also investing significantly to bring content to
India," he adds, as evidenced by content deals like the one
with ALTBalaji earlier this year to bring its digital content
to Airtel TV app users. Or indeed the deal back in 2017 between
Airtel and Amazon for the latter’s
Amazon’s Fire TV Stick with Voice Remote, to
create an enhanced online content experience for its
He continues: "The third big change that happened is cloud.
We have seen almost all of our enterprise customers and small
to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) move to cloud, resulting in
very high consumption levels of data."
Speaking of 4G and mobile offerings in general, Chikara says
that although he isn’t directly involved with the
ongoing 5G preparations at Airtel, the company is "ahead of the
curve in discussions with various companies and doing quite a
Over to subsea activity and April saw Airtel acquire the
India-Middle East-Europe leg of GBI’s submarine
cable. In addition to having full control of the Indian leg of
the cable, Airtel will also pick up a significant capacity on
Middle East-Europe leg of GBI’s cable system.
Airtel and GBI have also agreed to develop joint go-to-market
strategies and use the footprint of their respective global
networks to serve global customers. It will consolidate
Airtel’s global network and capacity leadership
and enable it to serve the exploding data demand in emerging
markets like India, Gulf and Africa.
Chitkara says that the move to do this is closely linked to
the amount of data traffic it has to carry and the number of
customers is serves: "Firstly, India carries the most data
traffic in the world and there is large scope for further
He points to content as another driver highlighting the need
to bring as much of it back to India to improve the experience
for the consumer. "Secondly, there’s still around
40% of content that is not in India. We are therefore
aggressively investing in cable systems with an aim to bring
some of that content to India in a very cost effective manner.
Acquisitions like GBI are in line with this
He adds that having full control of the capacity on the
cable is a strong benefit of having ownership over the cable,
something that helps Airtel maintain a high quality of service
for its customers.
"The route will help us lower latency, create more capacity
and give us full control. Once you get full ownership you can
quickly solve issues like service speed and fix faults
Looking at the bigger picture, the acquisition plays well
into Airtel’s goal of providing seamless
end-to-end solutions, which is why in addition to submarine
cables, the company is making heavy investments across a number
of different verticals.
"The other part to this is that we’ve started
building large data centres with an aim to lead the big players
entering India to onboard our data centre which offers a gamut
of seamless solutions," he adds. "We have a full suite of
services. We are also reaching out to the content players with
a plan to help them monetise their business better. With our
mobile value added services, we help these companies to easily
bill their customers."
For a telco that plays across so many different industry
sectors I was curious to know how Airtel manages the various
security risks across its entire business.
"There are three particular lines of business that are very
important to us. First is security, second is data centre and
cloud, and the third is the internet of things (IoT) side. For
us, security has two parts: first is the security, which is a
business opportunity given the increasing demand for it; and
the second part is about ensuring that our network and
infrastructure is secure.
"Security is very high up on our agenda because when you
carry the largest network into the country you carry the
largest responsibility at the same time."
The aforementioned announcements aside, Chitkara has a clear
picture of the future goals for the company on the B2B side and
he is ready and primed to execute them.
As a key player in the infrastructure space as well,
Chitkara adds that the company "will continue to build large
and stable infrastructure to support the stability of our
customer’s networks". "We are making large
investments on that front as well, whether it’s
domestic fibre, towers, access build up or submarine
In keeping with this promise of not straying from its core
infrastructure business, the company recently announced its
plan to expand its data footprint in Maharashtra and Goa by
rolling out 8,000 new sites and 4200km of optic fibre all
within the FY 2018-19. The planned rollout will see
Airtel’s sites go up by an added 25% to a total
38,000, while the additional optic fibre would increase its
fibre backbone to 21,600km.
Chitkara also emphasises some of the company’s
other investment plans in newer revenue streams and adds:
"Apart from our existing bouquet of network-related products,
we are aggressively also working towards products for the
future including - cloud security, managed services, IoT and
The company already has a number of IoT solutions that
leverages Airtel’s vast network that enables MNOs
to implement M2M connectivity and market it to global
enterprises. And thanks to its wholly-owned subsidiary, Nxtra
Data, it also has 10 data centres across seven locations across
India, managed services which includes dedicated hosting,
storage and back up and four levels of cloud infrastructure:
hybrid, public, private and back up.
Chitkara goes on to stress that whatever’s next
for the company, Airtel has a very clear underlying focus on
the customer: "We are obsessed with our customers."