Digital Transformation & Maturity

Bharti Airtel’s Harmeen Mehta on facing India’s unique challenges

This is part one of a wide-ranging, three-part interview with Harmeen Mehta, Global CIO, Bharti Airtel, which originally ran in its entirety in our Digital Leader Network newsletter. In this installment, Mehta explains why operating in India is a unique challenge. Part two will look at where Bharti Airtel is with its digital transformation and what it means for operational and business support systems. Finally, in part three we’ll discuss the complex relationship between telcos and over-the-top players, and the new kind of culture telcos must embrace.

India is one of the fastest-growing mobile phone markets in the world with more than a billion subscribers. The largest mobile operator in the country, Bharti Airtel, serves about 280 million of those customers, but trying to hold on to them (and win new customers) is no easy feat when the modus operandi of aggressive newcomers like Reliance Jio is to offer voice for free.

“None of the ‘B’ schools taught us how to fight free,” Mehta says.

Nonetheless, her company is holding its own with a strategy that is laser-focused on delivering what customers want, when and where they want it. Like most communications service providers (CSPs), Bharti Airtel must undergo massive digital transformation in order to deliver on that promise.

Understanding the business

Mehta, who joined Airtel in 2013, is leading the company on its transformation journey, drawing on her extensive experience outside the telecommunications industry. She began her career in the airline industry and later moved to investment banking. She has held top IT executive positions at HSBC, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and BBVA, Spain and Latin America’s second-largest bank.

“A technologist’s job today is not just about using new technologies, but instead it is about developing a deep understanding of the business and having the ability to translate their needs into a product or solution using the best technology available,” Mehta says in her profile on the Airtel website. “The best part about IT is that nothing is impossible! The only variables are time and effort.”

DB: Bharti Airtel is the third-largest CSP in the world and you’re operating in some of the most quickly developing parts of the world. How are your challenges different from those of operators in developed countries?

Bharti Airtel’s Harmeen Mehta

HM: The biggest difference that I see in countries like India and China is the scale. That’s by far the most pressing challenge. Even for a company like China Mobile, they are divided into 13 or 14 provinces and each has its own stack and IT. In India, one country alone has such massive scale – Airtel has about 380 million subscribers worldwide, and 280 million are in India only. That itself is a challenge and a half.

The other piece would be the complexity of the market itself. Unlike in other markets, in countries like India and in some markets in Africa as well, there are so many operators. India has 11 operators, so on the competitive landscape you end up fighting in the market with so many. Over a period of time, it inadvertently brings a lot of complexity in your platform, your pricing and how you’re structured.

Each competitor is trying to do their own thing. It’s a constant challenge to win, especially if you’re the No. 1 operator. You have to be ahead of the game all the time and in case someone else launches something innovative, you have to be able to compete with that as well. It keeps you on your toes. It keeps the product portfolio fresh on one side, but complicated on the other.

In addition, if I reflect back on the demographics of our customer base in India and countries like Nigeria, it’s amazingly different [from developed countries]. In India, the average age of the subscriber is early 30s whereas in countries in Africa, it’s early 20s. In Nigeria, 65 percent of the country is below 24, and 50 percent is below 15 years of age. With half of the country being a teenager, the portfolio, how you sell, how you market, how you design for that audience is very, very different. In India, we’ve got a lot of young talent as well – it’s one of the youngest countries in the world.

If all those challenges were not enough, the other piece that also comes into play to some extent is literacy and education. In India, for example, consumers have grown to embrace mobile despite lower levels of literacy, but this becomes a challenge as you start moving your organizations to be more digital.

DB: That’s interesting. Can you talk a bit more about the relationship between mobile penetration and literacy?

HM: From an infrastructure point of view, mobile penetration growth over last 15 years has been quite incredible. It’s a great story in its own right. India has about 20 million landline connections in the entire country for a population of 1.2 billion people, and this number is almost 25 percent lower than it was a decade ago. In Nigeria, there are about 2.8 million landline connections, but 100 million subscribers overall. So less than 2 percent of penetration is landline. These are mobile-only economies.

Literacy comes into picture when we start talking about penetration of smartphones because that’s where a level of basic understanding of electronics and the ability to read start coming into play – the ability to be able to comfortable using the apps. We’re finding that it’s not that you really need to be literate – people learn a lot of these things very quickly – but there is an intuitive element of learning and teaching. The teaching is coming much more from peers in the community, while the learning is self-driven and self-motivated. But it is an essential element and is growing more important. Smart phone penetration is still less than 40 percent of total mobile phones that do exist.

DB: Do you think mobile penetration encourages literacy?

HM: Mobile penetration doesn’t really impact literacy, but it does impact awareness. Indians are so much more aware now of what’s happening around them and in the world. You see it in how they’re embracing the concept of entertainment on five-and-a-half-inch screens. The average household in India can’t afford satellite, but they can watch TV on the [smartphone]screen. These are working-class people doing basic jobs and they often have a lot of lead time between journeys. A lot of that is spent on mobile phone, making calls, watching video snippets, hearing music or watching the latest Bollywood movie trailers. That awareness, that involvement is absolutely increasing. In developed nations, people probably don’t have as much time to spend on these things, so that is a differentiator and is changing society.

DB: Competition in India is fierce. How do you react to the competitive threat without being consumed by it? And how does it affect Bharti Airtel’s strategy?

HM: None of the ‘B’ schools taught us how to fight free – we’ve had competitors out there giving away something for free for almost a year. But as an organization, we’ve done tremendously well. We’ve been single-minded, focusing on our strategy to not only meet competitive demands but to become far more consumer- and customer-centric in these last few years.

We’ve made our strategy all about the consumer. That is a fundamental shift in our focus and our competitive strategy. These last 12 months have changed the face of telecom in India forever. We had 11 operators although now we’re seeing massive consolidation across the country. It’s led to a massive price drop –  India has cheapest data of any country across the world. Our prices are one-twentieth what they would be in the in the US and Japan. When it comes to brand value, we are highest in the country. The consumer association with Airtel as a brand is very, very strong. That has worked very much to our advantage in this competitive period.

It’s really reassuring that despite the heavily competitive landscape we’ve added market share this year and have expanded massively as a company and hope to do so again this year. Largely, the focus has been keeping a watch on the competitors but driving our own strategy. The passion that the people at Airtel have is a real differentiator.

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    About The Author

    Managing Editor

    Dawn Bushaus began her career in technology journalism in 1989 at Telephony magazine, which means she’s been writing about networking for a quarter century. (She wishes she didn’t have to admit that because it probably gives you a good idea of how old she really is.) In 1996, Dawn joined a team of journalists to start a McGraw-Hill publication called, and in 2000, she helped a team at Ziff-Davis launch The Net Economy, where she held senior writing and editing positions. Prior to joining TM Forum, she worked as a freelance analyst for Heavy Reading.

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