It’s been an eventful 30 years for Ashwani Khillan in the telecom industry as he has witnessed the sector evolve into one of the biggest and most vibrant in the country. The industry has made rapid progress, keeping pace with the global telecom industry. “The industry is setting global benchmarks and its technology uptake is keeping pace with international trends. This is why the Indian telecom industry is a great source of pride not just for the people associated with it but also for the millions who benefit from it on a daily basis,” he says.
After graduating in electronics and communications engineering from the Regional Engineering College (now NIT), Kurukshetra in 1989, he embarked on a postgraduate certification in business management from XLRI Jamshedpur in 2008. An erstwhile IAS aspirant, Khillan found himself on a different track altogether once he joined the telecom sector. Responsibilities at work kept him from his dream but all’s well that ends well, and today he is a happy man having played his part in the success of India’s now vibrant telecom sector.
In the first seven years after graduating, Khillan was involved in telecom manufacturing and worked for companies like Punjab Communications Limited, HFCL and Fujitsu India Telecom Limited. In the landmark year 1996, telecom services were privatised, and he found himself shifting from the manufacturing to the telecom service sector. In the following 16-odd years, he was associated with several mobile service operators, starting with Fascel (now Vodafone Gujarat), to Reliance Communications and Idea Cellular. Prior to his current assignment, he was chief technology officer for MTS India. He has also worked with global OEMs such as Ericsson and Huawei.
As chief operating officer with the American Tower Corporation (ATC), he is thrilled at the surge in demand for more and more wireless data. Mobile towers are handling a big increase in cellular traffic with operators trying to provide the best customer experience for both voice and data across a plethora of smart devices.
“While some of the growth is coming from additional users and more connected devices, most of it is coming from an increase in traffic per connected device as users demand more wireless data. The new traffic translates into growth prospects for tower operators as well,” he says.
ATC India’s greatly expanded portfolio of towers strategically positions the company to play a key role in providing communications real estate, which is essential for the deployment of advanced wireless technologies and to support the government’s Digital India initiative.
The criticality of telecom towers to the economy has catalysed a significant amount of innovation and research that can be tapped by other industries, he says. The extensive network of thousands of telecom towers is perfectly positioned to provide the ready last mile to connect 250,000 gram panchayats with high speed broadband connectivity as envisaged by the government’s National Optical Fibre Network project, now rechristened BharatNet. Additionally, telecom towers can act as a one-stop shop for the distribution of a range of services enabled via this broadband network.
“Telecom towers offer the best penetration among the urban and rural population along with reliable 24×7 power. This makes them an ideal choice for points of presence, offering the critical last mile for delivering multiple services like mobile, broadband, Wi-Fi, surveillance, ATM, disaster management, e-learning and e-governance to the end-consumer,” he says.
ATC India, given its footprint, has tower sites in many rural and underserved parts of India. As a leading independent owner and operator, it has a portfolio of over 143,000 communication sites. Conscious of the need to help villages develop, it aims to create Digital Smart Village Squares. As a part of this initiative, tower sites will be used to leverage space, security, uninterrupted power supply and a broadband link, which can then be used to provide digital services.
In implementing this vision, however, there are difficulties. Khillan enlists the key deterrents to passive infrastructure roll-out: prohibitive right-of-way costs on account of the short-term revenue-based approach of municipal corporations versus the one based on long-term benefits, procedural delays in the grant of permissions and clearances, and misplaced environment and health concerns among some sections of the public.
“As an industry, all ecosystem players are trying to address such concerns and we are dealing with several policy bottlenecks to ensure that the benefits of telecommunications reach the last mile,” he says.
The future prospects of the industry excite him. The number of telecom users has crossed the 1.05 billion mark and overall teledensity has increased to about 83 per cent. Smartphone sales in India are expected to contribute 29 per cent to this sector in 2016 while worldwide smartphone sales are estimated to witness a 7 per cent growth over the previous year to reach 1.5 billion units in 2016. As Khillan points out, India could be home to 500 million smartphone users soon.
“Telecom towers offer the best penetration among the urban and rural population. This makes them an ideal choice for points-of-presence, offering the critical last mile for delivering multiple services to the end-consumer.”
“It is a no-brainer that data services remain a major thrust area for telecom companies as the segment is relatively underpenetrated. The voice market in India has largely matured. With over 90 million customers utilising the 3G network in India, the telecom industry intends to target this customer base for 4G services in the years to come,” he says.
However, he is clear in his mind that the real uptake of data will take place only when it starts helping people improve their standard of life, when the money spent on data brings in actual returns. This, he adds, has been the case with basic telecom services. Calls are now an integral part of the work life for people.
In the near term, growth will come mainly from data and a lot of changes are expected in the ecosystem related to mobile applications. That’s where ATC comes in. At present, only 15-20 per cent of towers in India are connected through optical fibre. Therefore, linking towers with high speed backhaul becomes critical for catering to the needs of data-hungry consumers.
Every job move Khillan has made has been with an eye to achieving professional growth. He has chosen his assignments judiciously and each one has mattered. From a learning standpoint, his first job in services with Fascel Limited was extraordinary because in those four year, he learnt the basics of mobile services and how to do business in a highly competitive environment. “Even my current assignment with ATC is quite challenging as the entire industry is going through a major shift in terms of the next phase of the telecom revolution in India,” he says.
His core strengths include his ability to work hard and be passionate about his job. He strives to be a good team player and team leader as he is a firm believer in the view that it is only through excellent teamwork that you can overcome challenges.
“Ours is a tough industry and this is why I go to work with a very positive attitude and always look for solutions. In our industry, we need to be speedy and yet take calculated decisions,” he says. “On the weakness front, I would like to acknowledge the fact that I tend to get emotional at times. But that too has its own pluses at both the workplace and in my personal life.”
He likes to lead by example. Transparency is the key guiding principle in his management style and through transparency he is able to build a high degree of trust with his teams.
Another guiding principle of his management style is that every manager needs to add value. “Unless you are able to add value”, he says, “it is very difficult for you to command respect from your team as a manager.”
Being a huge cricket lover, he takes a lot of inspiration from cricketers and no one is bigger for him than Kapil Dev, who used to say: “Give more than 100 per cent for your team”. “It is such a simple statement, but if each member of the team can implement this, I think every team has the potential to become unbeatable,” quips Khillan.
He excelled in cricket at school. “I remember waking up at two in the morning to listen to the running commentary about India playing a Test match against New Zealand. I still have a deep passion for the game,” he says.
Apart from cricket, Khillan likes to spend his spare time with his wife Rachna, his daughter Pariniti, a 12th-grader, and his son Mayank, who is in the tenth grade. They love going out together for movies, shopping and dining out.
Obviously, a successful career in a demanding sector means that Khillan must spend long hours away from home. “By now, the family is quite used to my long working hours. They have been a great pillar of support for me and appreciate how critical my job is,” he says.