Strategy first, but action always

Strategy first, but action always

Ajay Chitkara, director and CEO of Bharti Airtel’s global voice and data business on the decisions and strategies of the company’s global wholesale business

Bharti Airtel is present in 18 countries across Asia and Africa. It is the biggest mobile network operator in India and the third largest in the world with over 360 million subscribers and growing daily. Airtel is considered by the giant advertising company WPP as one of India’s most valuable brands and it has been busy this year.

Airtel Business has been in the news for its agreement to acquire the MENA cable system from Orascom Telecom Media. The company connects India with Europe and the Middle East with options to extend the network to Africa. This acquisition is aimed at strengthening Airtel’s global network which runs across 225,000 route kilometres, 50 countries and five continents.This additional capacity will enable Airtel to serve the growing demand for data and enterprise services across its footprint across Asia and Africa. This decision was made after seeing the explosion of data usage in all of the emerging markets, including India and Africa. This asset will provide Airtel with a scalable and diverse high-capacity highway to serve their customers, particularly with India’s emergence as a major regional internet hub providing seamless global connectivity.

Ajay Chitkara, director and CEO of the global voice and data business in Bharti Airtel, has been planning this for a long time he says, and the competitors are not worrying him unduly, he says.

Eye on the future

The key is to have your eye on the future at all times, he says. “The constantly changing landscape of the network within the wholesale industry is something we have been dealing with for a long time. However last year I realised that we had much preparation to do for the coming changes not just in technology but in the market. I gave a big task to my team last year.” The target: everything has to be done online by the end of 2017. 

“The smaller companies cannot do this – it falls to the larger companies to do it. We need to be working from what we know the customer is expecting. We have to be ahead of their expectations,” he says.

Disrupt the wholesale model

The company “needs to break the old wholesale model. It is not working for any wholesale carrier at the moment. We need to disrupt the wholesale model – if we don’t do it, it will be done by our competitors.”

Chitkara continues: “On one hand we do 18 billion wholesale minutes every year and that sounds like a very healthy figure. And it is – but we can see, from the disruption of industries such as the media by Google and a lesser extent by Facebook, that healthy margins can be attacked from many differing directions.” Chitkara maintains that there is a fundamental problem with the way we describe wholesale. “We have an internal structural problem and it is inherent in the way we view the end-user who appears to be too far away for most wholesale operations to make long-term decisions about the direction they should be taking.”

Why are the big companies unable to deal with wholesale as a commodity, he asks himself. “Because of flawed internal structures and people issues. Someone has to take action and it is the larger companies like ours which have to do so because the smaller ones don’t have enough credibility. So the task to take action falls to the larger organisations.” 

He continues: “Soon we will launch our wholesale online portal. You come in, you log on and you will find all the pricing of voice, and you may find some promo-tional pricing. But the important thing is that you will be able to buy online, watch online, setup online and start the traffic online without any manual or human interaction.” Automation is key.

Chitkara says: “This business is also about buying from wholesale. And we are not having the right conversations – sometimes I see the same wholesalers buying from each other in the same venues with no new buyers in sight. We are trying to widen that market out.”

He continues: “The portal is almost finished and will be opening soon. The brief I gave my team is that there are not to be any salespersons, no delivery people and no support persons. That’s not where people make a difference. 

“The wholesale carrier business is not just about buying – it is also about selling and innovation with the end-user clearly in sight. The ones who will lose out in the long term are those who forget that. So we must make sure that people also realise they can sell to us. We are putting that part of the equation back in.” And it is this innovation which is the core reason why Airtel business now also offers IT based solutions that a telecom operator may need in its journey to the top. 

A gamut of utility-based offerings, such as one that makes subscriber on-boarding a matter of minutes instead of hours, assist retailers, help keep tabs on sales and performance amongst critical processes. 

These solutions were created first to overcome challenges that Airtel itself faced managing not just a huge global network but a huge subscriber base. 

Chitkara feels that these solutions can add significant value to a global telecom operator just like they have for Airtel. “We have also re-created our global consumer business. We are the third largest mobile company in the world. We are still growing - not just because of our scale but because we are striving to improve always.”

There are wider business problems for Bharti Airtel to keep an eye on. Bharti Airtel has continued its part in the rapid consolidation in the Indian mobile business by recently buying the 4G business of Tikona Digital Networks for the equivalent of $244 million. The deal gives Airtel extra spectrum in the 2,300GHz band in five service districts and access to 350 base stations.

Following the Tikona purchase, Airtel will have 2,300MHz spectrum in all parts of India, and plans to launch LTE services on the spectrum bought from Tikona in the five new areas, as soon as the deal is completed. Airtel is also spending an estimated $300 million on buying Telenor’s business in India.

Carriers lose focus 

Chitkara has his eye on the macro and the micro equally: “We are vigilant about which customer issues we are prioritising and in which order. Most wholesale carriers cannot see the customer and therefore lose focus. That is why some wholesale outfits will find it difficult to survive. Now everything is open due to software defined networking and change is easier than we think.”

Chitkara says: “We have developed a new infrastructure we call the Open Network. This ecosystem is strong – activation of services used to take 24 hours and now it is five minutes. 

“We get lots of call drops in India, so we have created an app which looks at the strength of the signal.”

He explains: “You can activate a location-based app which tells you if you are near a tower. If it turns out that the problem is that your nearest tower is too far away it will ask you if you want a tower erected on your building or rooftop or somewhere near you. This way we find out where the dropped calls are happening from the customers and we know where we have to fix them.” 

For Chitkara emerging markets are a focus: “China is a big emerging market but difficult to operate in. But we have interest from newcomers in many emerging markets and we can provide them with an unparalleled starter-package. We will provide a data centre, we’ll give you backbone, we’ll give you cables, we will give you infrastructure, the largest number of eyeballs in the country on the edge as well as at the core site. And we’ll provide API-based solutions so that you can monetise us.”

Bharti Airtel is aiming to do most of its business online and to do that properly it must commit to the cloud and invest in its network. Chitkara is optimistic about the future: “We add millions of subscribers every month – the equivalent of adding a new company to the network every day,” he says. “All of the the answers to our continued success lie both inside and outside of our company.”

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