With customer centricity central to its strategy, Bharti Airtel (also known as Airtel) is trying to turn itself into an open telco. "Open network was only for the network; and open telco encompasses the entire company—right from customer care, product, brand, network and IT," said Airtel CTO Randeep Sekhon, who talked about the company's strategies, opportunities as well as emerging technologies like 5G and AI in an interview with ZTE Technologies. Airtel is a leading global telecommunications company with operations in 18 countries across Asia and Africa. Headquartered in New Delhi, India, the company is the world's third largest mobile service provider globally in terms of subscribers.
"Customer centricity is the focus of any service in the industry, but more so for us"
What kind of role is Airtel playing in the telecom sector in India?
Telecom sector has a big impact on a country's economy. It provides the essential connectivity that has a direct impact on—businesses and people. We are moving towards a digital economy where the backbone is seamless connectivity. Airtel does its part in connecting businesses, workers, farmers, in urban as well as rural areas. Airtel has been the No. 1 operator for a long time. We have always maintained the need to provide good quality and experience for voice and data for both retail and enterprise customers. We support the Digital India initiative with an aim to empower more and more Indians and Indian businesses.
China is a successful example where companies like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent are successful because they have transformed into digital companies. These companies are supported by companies like China Mobile and China Telecom to connect their data centers to run their businesses and support users to use their services. I think the same thing is what Airtel is doing for Indian consumers and industries.
Airtel is very customer-centric and has already launched Open Network Initiative and Project Next. How do you improve and differentiate your customer experience?
Customer centricity is the focus of any service industry, but more so for us. If I speak from the technology side, we need to be able to provide a good experience to our customers in the form—quality data, quality voice and quality customer service. We are working towards being entirely transparent to our customers and towards becoming an 'Open Telco'.
Open network was only about the network but open telco encompasses the entire company—right from customer care, product, brand, network to IT. Our intention is to share information that affects the customer and ensure that we are totally transparent with them. We don't think good experience is about giving the top speed. It is about giving them a good experience whether they are watching a video, playing a game, or doing any online transaction. We analyze customer level data and strive to solve issues that are hindering a great experience that we intend to provide.
We want to be where we can predict that the user experience is going to go bad, and we fix it before that. We have to move from being reactive to pro-active.
So you are evolving to meet the increasingly sophisticated demands of customers.
Absolutely. Customers are very demanding. They consume a lot of services now. Mobile is central to a customer's universe whether it is a journalist, banker, taxi driver or from any walk of life. Each have their own specific demands which need to be met.
Traditionally, legacy networks weren't so sophisticated but now to deploy our network we work with partners like ZTE for improving network experience, handset manufacturers because handsets play a big role in the customers' experience, and content providers like Amazon, Netflix and YouTube for delivering faster and seamless service. We also work with gaming providers so that we have minimal latency on our network.
There is a lot of collaboration required and dependency on external entities to provide top quality customer experience unlike before when it was just the network that needed to be streamlined.
"Once technologies like 5G come in, we can do much more in the enterprise business"
The ARPU is going down as a result of price wars in India. Where do you think the new revenue opportunities come from?
It did go down from earlier times but now it has been stable for one year. In fact, Airtel has started seeing mobile ARPU go up. But there are many opportunities for telcos like us to get more revenue. I think one big opportunity is enterprise business. We have a very strong enterprise business, which is purely connectivity, IPLC, leased line and internet.
We do have data center, security, SD-WAN, and things like that. But I think once technologies like 5G come in, we can do much more in the enterprise business. As enterprises start to use more automation, more digitization, they will need telcos to support them. That's one place where we can go.
Home broadband is another place where we can go. We have not seen in India so much APRU drop in broadband. We still feel fiber to home business has a huge potential.
We also have DTH business where we give digital TV to consumers. I think that's another business which is growing. More people are moving from cable to digital TV.
Overall, Airtel has the primary mobile business, which is stable now and growing, enterprise business, which is growing well, broadband business and DTH, which has a lot of potential and is growing.
5G and AI are expected to enable intelligent networks and change industries. What do you think of the transformational potential of this combination?
I think AI and machine learning technologies are two tools which are helping us manage this complex business. Looking inward (within Airtel)—we have such a complex network, which cannot run purely by traditional methods, so we have realized the need to automate processes, such as in our NOC where we do the RCAs, correlate alarms, generate auto tickets, and predict customer experience. These things allow us to be proactive. But I think it is a journey that has just begun. Once 5G comes in, we would be able to process the data faster and move to the edge. I think that will enable a lot of theoretical use cases to become functional.
In China, Shenzhen is one city that has been successful in making the city secure using AI and high-speed connectivity. I think once the connectivity in India improves further possibly with 5G coming—and you have laid out AI use cases—there are a lot of opportunities to do.
If you take it outward—for enterprises, using AI tools, I think enterprises can become more efficient and competitive in the global landscape. This would mean higher chances of being successful.
Which areas will 5G and AI get applied first?
5G would enable the network to move to the edge. Airtel itself can become proactive and efficient internally by using AI & 5G and provide eMBB and fixed wireless experience to our customers.
Like China, India has many OTT companies like digital banks, OTTs for content, gaming, food delivery etc. I think these companies can become excellent beneficiaries of it. Marketing companies can use them to target better propositions for their customers. AI has the potential to disrupt any industry. I think this is where a lot of legacy industries can progress very fast if they start using it.
"We need all stakeholders to come together"
In a telecom market as dynamic and challenging as India, what are your strategies going forward?
Customer centricity is our only strategy if you ask me. Everything for the customer whether it is the network experience, the billing and payment experience, the product experience or the experience at the Airtel stores. For doing that, we want to do simplification, automation and standardization. We want to produce the lowest cost per GB so that we can compete in a two dollar ARPU market.
We also want to work with our people. All leaders need to develop a digital mindset and get used to this technological shift. I think this new DNA in our workforce and our leadership will help us compete better.
Last is our win-win relationship with our partners like I have explained to you about customer experience. We cannot do it alone so we need our OEM partners like ZTE, handset partners, content partners and infrastructure partners. So we need all stakeholders to come together.
How do you view the future? And what's your expectations from ZTE?
We depend a lot on partners like ZTE to innovate and bring new use cases relevant to India market. And we also want them to help us in digitization and automation because we feel this whole complex network should do away from manual processes and strive to become completely automated. To go along this automation path, a partner like ZTE is a boon to have.
There is also a need to have tailor-made solutions for different needs across India. For example, rural India cannot be dealt with the same way as urban India hence it needs a different solution to establish a win-win situation for customers as well as Airtel.
Another thing we need from our OEM partners is to be future-ready. I want every investment we are making now should make its way to new technologies. We should reuse our investment as much as possible. Let's say, if I buy a BBU for 4G, tomorrow I have to bring 5G in the same site; then I should be able to add 5G services on this BBU and probably bring radio for sub-6 GHz or another 5G frequency. Since it is an investment-heavy business, our capital expenditures need to be future-ready and serve for a longer period of time.
How do you evaluate ZTE's innovation capability in the 5G arena?
I think ZTE really has really bridged the gap. They are the top supplier as far as the 5G is concerned, especially with their experience in the China market. Now China has taken a big leap in front of the world in 5G. China has had big city launches and are adopting 5G and bringing a lot of B2B use cases along with eMBB. I think ZTE has a dominant role to play with Chinese operators. We can learn a lot from that and use those experiences in India as India gets ready to deploy 5G.
I see technologies like Massive MIMO where ZTE has done a lot of research, in hardware, which are sporting different technologies, in core & transport network. I think ZTE has now the full portfolio, especially as the dependence on external suppliers is less. Being vertically integrated, that is, having your own chip, your own data base allows ZTE to maintain a strong business continuity. This strategy has served ZTE really well. I think this allows ZTE to gain good business traction in the 5G market.