Voice & Data Per­son of the Year 2016

Voice & Data Per­son of the Year 2016

Voice&Data - - CONTENT - —Gopal Vit­tal

Year 2016 was Air­tel’s Year all the way. At the helm, apart from Su­nil Mit­tal whose rise in In­dia tele­com is leg­endary, there is Gopal Vit­tal, the man Mit­tal hired as CEO in 2013 and tasked him with lead­ing Bharti Air­tel through the data boom.

Vit­tal had demon­strated his met­tle in 2006-2008 as head of mar­ket­ing at Bharti align­ing the com­pany in In­dia with mar­ket de­mand 2 and build­ing con­sumer con­nect, at a time when Bharti was scal­ing up op­er­a­tions to reach B, C cites and be­yond. An alum­nus of IIM-Kolkata, hired by Hin­dus­tan Unilever (HUL) in 1990 soon af­ter grad­u­at­ing, Vit­tal had for train­ing ground, one of the world’s best and, In­dia’s largest FMCG com­pany where he was in­volved in scal­ing and build­ing out­reach to ru­ral ar­eas for Hin­dus­tan Unilever prod­ucts. Dur­ing 2008-2012, he built a great track record for him­self at HUL head­ing the MNC’s home and per­sonal care busi­ness.

By the time his ACT II as CEO at Bharti Air­tel be­gan in 2013 the tele­com in­dus­try has been through the voice-led growth spurt and was bay­ing for its next growth spurt, this time around led by data. Be­sides, the mar­ket com­plex­ion had changed with in­creased com­peti-

Un­der Vit­tal’s lead­er­ship, Air­tel has made rapid strides in the emerg­ing 4G LTE seg­ment in In­dia

tion and news of an im­pend­ing en­try of an­other player of reck­on­ing in the mar­ket.

Three years later, in De­cem­ber 2016, Bharti Air­tel con­tin­ues to lead the In­dia tele­com in­dus­try. Un­der Vit­tal’s lead­er­ship, Air­tel has made rapid strides in the emerg­ing 4G LTE seg­ment in In­dia.

The Many Wins

In FY 2016, the telco gave it­self some po­tent shots in the arm in an ob­vi­ous strat­egy aimed to up the ante for the com­pe­ti­tion, and to stay ahead of the pack. It worked to fill var­i­ous key gaps and bol­stered ca­pa­bil­i­ties on mul­ti­ple fronts.

The first ma­jor move came when the Gopal Vit­tal-led Bharti Air­tel de­cided to ag­gres­sively ramp up its pan-In­dia 4G pres­ence even as the ef­forts to grow its 3G base con­tin­ued. It launched 4G in close to 300 cities across In­dia in Au­gust 2015 and kept adding new lo­ca­tions through­out the year. The ser­vice was

un­der­stood to be avail­able in over 500 cities across 15 cir­cles by the end of the fis­cal 2016.

The tele­com ma­jor also grew con­scious of a grow­ing need to aug­ment its 4G pres­ence be­yond 15 cir­cles, so as to counter any per­cep­tions around its 4G ca­pa­bil­i­ties vis-à-vis the com­pe­ti­tion in gen­eral and the green­field 4G ma­jor Reliance Jio In­fo­comm in par­tic­u­lar.

Air­tel took the merger & ac­qui­si­tions-cum-spec­trum-trad­ing route to ex­pand its 4G pres­ence, and en­tered into a series of deals for the pur­pose. First, in De­cem­ber 2015, it ac­quired Augere Wire­less and gained ac­cess to 20 MHz of TD LTE spec­trum in the Mad­hya Pradesh cir­cle. Next, in March 2016, it bought out Video­con Tele­com’s spec­trum as­sets in the 1800 MHz band for the six cir­cles of Bi­har, Haryana, Mad­hya Pradesh, Ut­tar Pradesh (East), UP (West) and Gu­jarat. Then in April 2016, just af­ter the close of the FY 2015-16, it clinched a spec­trum trad­ing deal with Air­cel for eight more cir­cles of Tamil Nadu (in­clud­ing Chennai), Bi­har, J&K, West Ben­gal, As­sam, North East, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. The three deals to­gether, de­spite some over­lap­ping cir­cles, ex­tended Air­tel’s 4G LTE pres­ence to all the 22 tele­com cir­cles, with a mix of 1800 MHz and 2300 MHz bands.

This made it the only com­mer­cially live pan-In­dia op­er­a­tor to have 4G spec­trum for all cir­cles, un­til Reliance Jio In­fo­comm an­nounced its com­mer­cial launch in Septem­ber 2016.

Dur­ing the fis­cal 2016, Air­tel’s rev­enue growth was in­deed fu­eled by data rev­enue growth, which was am­ply re­flected in the grow­ing data ARPUs. Monthly data ARPU went up from Rs 181 in the first quar­ter of FY 2016 to Rs 200 in the third quar­ter. How­ever, the fourth quar­ter wit­nessed a small de­cline and clocked a monthly data ARPU of Rs 196.

The man­age­ment at Air­tel it ap­pears had en­vis­aged a slow­ing growth in data rev­enue on anvil, and were work­ing on a Rs 60,000 crore net­work trans­for­ma­tion plan with a po­ten­tial to mas­sify data us­age across its sub­scriber seg­ments and cir­cles. The spend spread over a pe­riod of three years and is over and above the Rs 1.6 lakh crore that Air­tel has al­ready in­vested so far. The pro­gram, named Project Leap, aimed to add a whop­ping 70,000 base sta­tions within the fis­cal 2016, among var­i­ous other things.

Air­tel also be­came the first op­er­a­tor in the coun­try to com­mer­cially de­ploy LTE-Ad­vanced dur­ing the FY 2016 fis­cal, with Ker­ala be­com­ing the first cir­cle to fea­ture the tech­nol­ogy. No­tably, LTE-A makes it pos­si­ble to ag­gre­gate smaller spec­trum ca­pac­i­ties dif­fer­ent fre­quency sets, such as 1800 MHz and 2300 MHz, into one wider band for the end users, pro­vided they are wield­ing LTE-A hand­sets.

Road Ahead

Forced to com­pete on tar­iff, Vit­tal now has no choice but take Reliance Jio head on in the bat­tle for con­sumers. Match­ing steps with Jio, Air­tel in 2017 has an­nounced its of­fer of free data (worth Rs 9,000) for 12 months to cus­tomers who switch to Air­tel 4G. The 12 months of­fer is avail­able to any customer with a 4G mo­bile hand­set, and who is cur­rently not on the Air­tel net­work. Any customer, in­clud­ing ex­ist­ing Air­tel cus­tomers, up­grad­ing to a new 4G hand­set can also avail this of­fer. The of­fer will be avail­able to cus­tomers across In­dia un­til Fe­bru­ary 28, 2017.

Com­pe­ti­tion is set to get hot­ter with dis­rup­tion across sec­tors play­ing a role. Air­tel, it is said, is also hold­ing talks to ac­quire Te­lenor 4G spec­trum, as the Nor­we­gian telco looks to exit In­dia mar­ket. Vit­tal and Air­tel Man­age­ment are in the fray to de­fend Air­tel’s spot as a mar­ket leader and chart the next phase of growth in In­dian tele­com even as In­dia’s No 1 telco Air­tel con­tin­ues to buy time to put it­self on firmer ground and trans­form into a shape-shift­ing dig­i­tal ser­vice provider to serve the emerg­ing mar­ket de­mand. There won’t be a dull mo­ment for Vit­tal in 2017.

Bharti Air­tel CEO Gopal Vit­tal re­ceives the Voice&Data Per­son of the Year 2016 Award from Dr Rahul Khullar, for­mer Chair­man, TRAI; Dr Arvind Gupta, Na­tional Head - IT Cell, Bhar­tiya Janta Party; and Ekow Nel­son, Ex­ec­u­tive VP & Re­gional Head of IT & Cloud Busi­ness, Eric­s­son

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