The Indian telecom sector is witnessing challenging yet exciting times with sector dynamics changing continuously and the competitive landscape heating up. Many operators are reworking their strategies and chalking out new business plans to expand their reach. Data has emerged as the key business driver for the industry and operators are focusing on growing their 3G and 4G presence across the country. The industry is also gearing up for the adoption of advanced technologies including 5G, internet of things (IoT), virtualisation and artificial intelligence. At the India Mobile Congress 2017, industry veterans spoke on the key trends in the Indian telecom market, emerging opportunities and the future outlook. Excerpts…

Mukesh Ambani, Chairman, Reliance Industries Limited

Mukesh Ambani

India has emerged as the world’s largest mobile data-consuming nation in the past one year. The pace at which the mobile industry has grown is unparalleled. In the next 10 years our economy is poised to grow from $2.5 trillion at present to over $7 trillion and to rank among the top three economies in the world. To make this happen, the telecom and IT industry has to play a foundational role in creating the digital infrastructure.

As a nation, we missed out on the first three industrial revolutions – mechanisation, mass production and automation. The fourth industrial revolution, which is fuelled by connectivity, data and artificial intelligence, has begun. The country now has the opportunity to lead the fourth industrial revolution, which is expected to usher in more dramatic transformations globally in the next 20 years than the three previous revolutions. Mobile internet and cloud computing are the foundational technologies of the fourth industrial revolution. Data will be a new source of value and will create opportunities and prosperity for the country and millions of Indians.

As an industry, we have the urgent task of empowering 1.3 billion Indians with the tools needed to flourish in the digital marketplace. Data is the oxygen of the digital economy and people must be provided with ubiquitous access to high speed data at affordable prices. At the same time, they must have access to affordable smartphones that can bring them the power of the internet.

The Indian mobile market is now overflowing with data. 4G coverage will become larger than 2G coverage within the next 12 months. Thus, there is an ur­gent need to apply the revolutionary powers of digital technologies to address the pressing needs and challenges of the country and to fulfil its Digital India vision. To this end, first, the telecom industry must explore and implement innovative ideas to generate employment and provide in­co­me-generation opportunities for millions of Indian youth. We must foster confidence in society that new technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, IoT, cloud computing, big data analytics, 3D printing, block chain and nanotechnology are enablers of employment and wealth for all. The potential of these new technologies must particularly be tapped to transform and create jobs in the rural and agricultural sectors. Second, digital technologies can be a boon for achieving our national priorities of energy, water and resource security. New sources of energy and new modes of transportation with unparalleled efficiencies have become a reality, thanks to the convergence of several technologies. India must embark on the task of connecting everything and everyone via a super IoT. Third, the nation’s human capital is our greatest asset. Therefore, digitalisation of education, skill training and human resour­ce development in a comprehensive manner must be regarded as a precondition for the success of Digital India.

To accomplish all these tasks, the telecom and IT industry will have to partner with every sector of the economy and the government, every business and every institution. The industry has to invest in building next-generation technology as­sets, root out inefficiencies across the digital ecosystem and forge partnerships.

“Data is the oxygen of the digital economy and people must be provided with ubiquitous access to high speed data at affordable prices.” Mukesh Ambani

Vittorio Amedeo Colao

Vittorio A. Colao, Chief Executive Officer, Vodafone Group

Telecom has played a crucial role in the last two decades in transforming the lives of individuals, societies and nations. The Vodafone Group is playing a significant role in this transformation globally and in India specifically, the company has a long-term commitment to the government’s Digital India programme. The initiative fo­cuses on digitalisation, smart governance, start-ups and ease-of-doing business, which are the key elements to take the country forward. Vodafone India is the largest foreign direct investment (FDI) contributor in the country, with over Rs 1,340 billion already invested. We offer high quality connectivity to over 210 million customers across the country, with around 50 per cent of these being in rural areas.

India’s biggest strength is its young and talented workforce. We have trained more than 10,000 young Indians. They manage our global networks. Therefore, in a way, they also support the government’s vision of Make in India for the world.

Indian consumers have a strong appe­tite for data services. Despite this, over half a billion people are not yet connected to the internet, and this presents a great opportunity for all. To realise India’s full potential as a superpower, it is essential that the telecom sector, which is the core driver of economic development, is in good health. Telecom will be a key enabler of a future-fit India. We must realise that telecom enables other key sectors such as healthcare and education, and is a key catalyst for innovation.

Our mission at Vodafone is to connect people to enable them to live a better life today and build a better tomorrow. Our focus is now on expanding beyond voice to mobile data, converged services, cloud services, IoT and machine to machine, which can be seen in our new offerings for our subscribers and business customers.

Digital is becoming a way of life and it has now become imperative to have seamless high speed connectivity at home, work and play; basically anywhere and everywhere. This requires the integration of multiple technologies into a single-ma­c­hine network that can offer the best and uninterrupted services. At Vodafone, we call it unified communication and offer it in most parts of the world. We now want to offer this in India too. This is strategic not only for Vodafone but for India as a country.

Our proposed merger with Idea Cellular is the next exciting chapter for Vodafone. We will create a strong champion for Digital India, which will be a great support for the government’s vision and the Indian citizens’ ambitions.

“Telecom will be a key enabler of a future-fit India. We must realise that telecom enables other key sectors and is a key catalyst for innovation.” Vittorio Amedeo Colao

Sunil Bharti Mittal, Founder and Chairman, Bharti Enterprises

Sunil Bharti Mittal

India, with 1.3 billion people, offers a big opportunity. Even though the industry has its own share of challenges, there are undoubtedly not too many markets in the world where a billion people are ready to use and consume digital media. Further, there is relevant policy support for using digital platforms to serve society. Global innovation hubs such as Google, YouTube and Facebook are focused on tapping the Indian market and are striving to build tailor-made solutions for countries like India. This is a big departure from the point when technologies were being made just for the best in the world. This gives hope that India will eventually emerge as one of the leading telecom markets in the world.

All industry stakeholders would have to come together to enable the country’s digital transformation. While operators compete head-on for the benefit of customers, they would have to collaborate amongst themselves to create ecosystems, use common towers and also common fibre. Here, government support is equally important in terms of policies that will eventually decide how fast this digital wave can be propelled. The telecom industry on its part would like to urge the policymakers and regulators for an easy right-of-way (RoW) procedure. RoW is difficult to get and is very expensive as on-the-ground permissions do not come easily.

The Indian telecom industry has put in a humongous amount of investment in the sector. Bharti Airtel would have put in over Rs 100 million in the physical infrastructure up to September 2017. During 2017-18, the plan is to put in Rs 180 million-Rs 200 million of investments. The other operators too have made significant investments. Government policies that can enable these investments will help in achieving the Digital India vision in a fas­ter and a more impressive manner.

Further, as 5G starts to develop globally, India is closely tracking the developments. All market players must come together to ensure that India is rewarded with the latest technology for the benefit of society.

“India, with 1.3 billion people, offers a big opportunity. There are not too many markets in the world where a billion people are ready to use and consume digital media.” Sunil Bharti Mittal