Digital Adoption Only Way To Quickly Revive Economic Momentum, Says Sunil Mittal
Sunil Mittal, chairman of Bharti Airtel Ltd. Photographer: T. Narayan/Bloomberg

Digital Adoption Only Way To Quickly Revive Economic Momentum, Says Sunil Mittal

The coronavirus pandemic has decelerated economic activities across the world and the only way to quickly bring back the momentum is through digital adoption, according to Bharti Airtel Ltd. Chairman Sunil Mittal.

“The world has gone -5.1% and the only way to quickly bring the economic momentum back is through digital medium,” he said during the Qatar Economic Forum.

Mittal cited the example of China’s quick shift to digital during the Covid-19 pandemic. “We saw within two weeks 250 million students moved online in China. The same is now happening everywhere else in the world.”

According to Mittal, several essential services such as fintech, healthcare and education are now already being provided to the customers through mobile phones.

“Amazon, Google, Facebook, all these companies are coming and supporting India’s vision towards that medium and ensuring there are tools available, there are mediums of digital connectivity, and importantly, there are enough entrepreneurial ecosystem developing around these digital ecosystems that they are able to serve the customer needs,” he said.

The digital acceleration has forced the hand of almost every major corporate entity in the world, Mittal said. “In my own opinion, companies that are not going to adopt to the digital ways of life are going to start to fall behind and this is something that is engaging all the boards, very seriously now.”

Here's the edited transcript of the interview.

Mr. Mittal, what's your playbook post pandemic? What will be the legacy you think of this pandemic, on global commerce?

Sunil Bharti Mittal: First and foremost, is bringing our lives back the broken-down global system of trade and investment. Think the last few years before the pandemic, we saw nation states becoming more self-centred and this pandemic, to my mind has brought to the fore the need to collaborate and to open oneself and nations to a larger grand ambition of keeping the world safe and together.

How are you rethinking your business now given the scenario you've just painted?

Sunil Bharti Mittal: Very clearly digital acceleration has forced the hand of almost every major corporate entity in the world, and more and more digital tools and mediums are being used to do things for the companies itself within the systems and importantly how best to serve the customers in a more efficient and a faster way. In my own opinion, companies that are not going to adopt to the digital ways of life are going to start to fall behind and this is something that is engaging all the boards, very seriously now.

So, you touch on technology, it is a double-edged sword, connectivity has become even more important now than ever before. You're trialling the 5G network now. Can 5G be the answer to bridging inequality in countries like India where the pandemic has even deepened that divide?

Sunil Bharti Mittal: Well in my nearly 27-28 years of life in telecommunications, I have never seen a technology which is really at the cutting edge going to sell the remote and rural leads, first and foremost. 5G is more for industrial applications, autonomous cars, management of drones, robotic surgeries. So, I think we will have to find other ways, and thankfully, there is technology at hand to do that more and more, radio networks going deeper but still places which can't be served by radio we will have to go from space to serve them.

So, what are Bharti’s own plans to serve the people, what are your plans on that front?

Sunil Bharti Mittal: Well we are firing on all cylinders, connecting more and more homes on fibre so that shift of traffic that has happened from offices to homes is well served and we are doing well at that. More spread of terrestrial radio networks going more and more deeper into rural areas and finally we have now taken a very big bold bet with one web, which is going to be one of the first two LEO constellations in space, serving every square inch of the world where they serve earth, oceans, mountains, deserts, jungles, anywhere—you will have a radio signal to serve the people who are not connected to internet and do keep in mind, half of the world is still offline. Given the progress this world has made, I think it is a matter of shame that we are still having so many people, which are left behind.

Let's pick up on one web, it is a mini satellite firm. It's one of the most exciting projects you've undertaken, you've embarked on in recent times, talk to us about the business case for Bharti. What goals, what targets, have you set for yourself?

Sunil Bharti Mittal: Just imagine a telecom network beaming out of space with 648 satellites moving at 25,000 kilometres an hour speed around the globe and covering the entire globe in one hour and 19 minutes. You can imagine the power that it has in its hands. With a very high speed, low latency bandwidth, which was missing from the earlier satellites, we will now create the magic of serving those who remain unconnected. Bharti is leading this charge along with the British government. The Util Sat by the European company, which has the French government involved is also a part of it and so Softbank, and we are delighted to be nearing our vision of starting to provide services soon in the coming year.

How will that complement Bharti’s digital outreach you think?

Sunil Bharti Mittal: Just imagine, when I go to a customer, he has got many rural installations, depots, warehouses factories, which need connectivity and he has got offices in Mumbai and major cities. So now you offer one single solution from Bharti to say, hey, we are serving your end-to-end needs wherever you are in the world, wherever you are, whether it's deserts or the Himalayas, we will serve you. Then there are needs are for defence authorities, maritime, aviation. I'm sure you've experienced the poor internet services in aircrafts. I think we are talking about those days behind us now once LEO constellation starts to beam into aircrafts.

Mr. Mittal, will it be a game changer for you? You've talked about how, just within the telecom space in India, there are now, two and a half players no longer three. Will this be a game changer for Bharti?

Sunil Bharti Mittal: Well I think that there are two separate sensations here. One is really India. Where from 12 operators, we are down to really two-and-a-half now. Will India go down to two, and my own view is, I'll be tragic. India is a very large country, it deserves to have three private sector players. I hope we end up with that situation but as far as Airtel, my own company is concerned, it is gaining ground, it is gaining market share, it's in a very solid position. In Africa we have strengthened our company, it is doing extremely well. So, we remain very steadfast in our ambitions but what OneWeb does is, it really sits on top of that ambition to serve the areas that we could have never imagined that we'll be able to serve. So, it's a really a complement to technology that is coming through.

I want to touch on the consumer behaviour, Bharti is across sectors, telecom, insurance, food, education, real estate—has anything changed fundamentally for the consumer and in particular the 1 billion consumers in India, where everybody the likes of Amazon, Google, Facebook, all want one thing, a slice of that huge pie.

Sunil Bharti Mittal: Indeed, a lot has changed. Given that there has been a deceleration in economic activities that the world has gone -5.1%, the only way to quickly bring the economic momentum back is as I said, through digital medium. We saw within two weeks 250 million students moved online in China. The same is happening everywhere else in the world. We really need to support the digital vision and our Prime Minister, who has had digital from day one when he assumed office, as his mission, one of the four pillars, has been driving this agenda for the nation. I'm glad that we today have FinTech coming through mobile phones, we have healthcare services coming through mobile phones, the identification coming to mobile phones, and importantly, education type of services which are essential. That is where I would say Qatar is very highly focused. I served on the ‘Education Above All’ foundation of Sheikha Moza. So, education is one of the most important needs for India today. We have to educate our 250 million young children who are between the age of 6 and 16 and if we keep on getting disrupted in running our schools and universities, the only way is through digital medium. Amazon, Google, Facebook, all these companies are coming and supporting India's vision towards that medium and ensuring there are tools available, there are mediums of digital connectivity, and importantly, there are enough entrepreneurial ecosystem developing around these digital ecosystems that they are able to serve the customer needs.

You said before that those who are here yesterday, are not here today, those who are here today may not be here tomorrow, yourself included. What new businesses might your group be looking at to ensure that you stay relevant tomorrow?

Sunil Bharti Mittal: I still maintain that. I mean a lot of people believe that they are here forever. The fact is, you keep at looking at the history, and you will realise many of those companies never thought they will disappear, have actually gone off the face of the business charts. So yes, what is always conscious, you need to build companies for the future, you need to build companies for the next generations and in that order, we keep on reinventing ourselves moving from 2G to 3G and very quickly to 4G and now moving on to 5G and more importantly moving straight into space now. So, we have to stay relevant, things are changing faster than what we saw a decade back and if we don't remain alert and your alive, we will be history.

Big plans, Mr. Mittal, looking at new investors coming into either Bharti Airtel or your holding company, anything we should know about?

Sunil Bharti Mittal: Well a lot of people knock on our doors. We refuse more capital than we accept. We have been blessed with great significant investors. Qatar Foundation endowment made its largest investment ever in India in Bharti Airtel. Qatar Investment Authority QIA has invested in Africa with us, SingTel Temasek, GIC and the whole Globe’s top charts of investors are with us in our companies. I can tell you that we get investments easily. Bharti raised $12 billion in the last 24 months during this difficult period when the industry was going through crisis. So, I remain confident. Shall we raise more money in the near term? Well, you can never say never, but right now there is nothing here.

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