Sunil Bharti Mittal, chairman, Bharti Airtel

During the past two and a half decades, the telecom sector has not only revolutionised the way people communicate, it has also changed the trajectory of India’s economic growth and development. At a recent online event, Desh Ki Digital Udaan, organised by the Department of Telecommunications and the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the first mobile call made in India, Sunil Bharti Mittal, chairman, Bharti Airtel, talked about the industry’s journey so far and what lies ahead. Edited excerpts from his address…

Twenty-five years back, India had started its mobile journey. Airtel and a few others started out by catering to metro cities, providing services to the rich and elite. The COAI was also formed at that point in time. As the founder chairman of the COAI, I, along with other entrepreneurs, started to dream about mobile phones in every nook and corner of the country.

The COAI has played a very important role in shaping this industry. It ensured that a competitive environment is maintained, and that government regulations and policies were well crafted to support India’s digital dream.

The last 25 years have been glorious in every respect. Today, over a billion people in India are connected across cities, small towns, villages and rural areas. Of these billion people connected on the mobile network, nearly 600 million use broadband services.

We saw the number of telecom operators move up from two to 12 over the past few decades. And today, we are back to 3+1 operators serving the nation. We believe that the tariffs we now have in India are the most affordable anywhere in the world. Customers are enjoying over 15 GB of data usage per month at the most affordable rates. For less than Rs 200, people are accessing various music and entertainment apps, vital government services, direct benefit transfer access, financial inclusion, etc. on their phones.

The telecom sector has also played a key front role in these difficult times of the corona pandemic by keeping everyone connected and ensuring that the country’s economic engine continues to move forward.

It is hard to imagine how any nation would have survived during this pandemic without a robust telecom network. I would like to compliment all the telecom players and the people who have led this from the front to ensure that India remains connected and that too with high quality broadband services. Even in the most difficult period of the lockdown, our people ensured that services were always available to people across the country.

Digital India is a vision that the country holds very dear. Telecom is playing a very vital role in ensuring that societies are connected. The sector is working as the digital spine for the vision of Digital India. Telcos are preparing to take up a front role when 5G comes to India, and are gearing up to connect all that is required to be connected in the country.

What we are looking forward to in the next 25 years is IoT connectivity, low-latency connectivity and a full 5G-enabled network across the country, ensuring that digital payments, online activities, e-commerce, healthcare, agricultural services and e-governance are all conducted effectively through a robust mobile network.

It is also time for the government to relook at this industry, which has had its ups and downs, and give due attention to areas such as levies and taxes. Taxes have generally been very high for this industry. It is important that this is reviewed thoroughly and telecom resources such as spectrum do not become a source of earning for the exchequer but a force multiplier in ensuring that the economic momentum becomes faster and gets accelerated so that the government can earn its dues from other industries that are going to be riding on the back of the telecom industry.

I also feel the time has come for India to take the lead in the area of local manufacturing. The government’s vision of Atmanirbhar Bharat is giving us all a clarion call to ensure that more and more value addition is done in India for telecom networks and mobile devices, and to accelerate our software abilities within the country.

To sum up, I am delighted that Airtel was amongst the founding members of this industry some 25 years back and it is still holding strong. We will continue to serve the needs of the mobile industry in the years to come.