Big network, big responsibility

20 June 2018 |

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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 development. 

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 growth. 

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 business decisions. 

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 customers.  

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 few trials”.

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 growth.” 

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 objective.” 

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 etc.”

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.  

“One of our initiatives is to create a digital platform for any and all type of products and services that caters to the whole customer lifecycle end-to-end, whether its acquisition, delivery or support.” 

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 cables.” 

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 data centres.” 

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.”