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Airtel’s Mittal vows to unite telecom sector

Bharti Airtel chairman Sunil Mittal on Thursday vowed to take the lead in bringing the industry together to unleash India’s telecom dream.

A day after the government announced reforms in the sector, the telecom czar said he had reached out to Vodafone’s Nick Read and will also speak to Reliance Industries Ltd chairman Mukesh Ambani on the road ahead.

Mittal exhorted the industry to collaborate in areas such as infrastructure sharing to reduce costs but ruled out the possibility of any cartelization.

Amid reports of its potential tie-ups with handset makers to counter Jio’s coming ultra-low-cost smartphone, Mittal said Airtel is in a state of “readiness” on an affordable smartphone “should a need arise”.

Calling on the industry to join forces to take the telecom sector to newer heights, Mittal, at a virtual briefing, said he would like to take the lead in ensuring that the industry works closely together.

Conversations will be about the industry’s health and market distribution structure, but not on tariffs, he said.

“How can it be that when you have to have more market share against each other, how can you have tariff discussion? Impossible,” he said.

Mittal said he had spoken to Vodafone CEO and will also reach out to Reliance Industries’ chairman. “I reached out to Nick Read yesterday, and I will reach out to Mukesh Ambani and speak to him and ensure that industry truly becomes role model for many other infrastructure industries in the country,” Mittal said.

Mittal said he told Read that Voda Idea has a “lifetime opportunity” to retake what has been a “lost cause”, and that it was time for Vodafone Group and Kumar Mangalam Birla (Aditya Birla Group chairman) to step up their own contribution into their company.

“I feel that if I was in their place, this is an opportunity to retrieve a lot of value back into hands of people who have invested large amounts of money. Vodafone has put in $20 billion. I’m sure Birla would have put in billions of dollars. It is time for them to really take advantage to contribute their own money and resources, to revive the beleaguered company,” Mittal said.

Mittal added that his conversations with Ambani will be around telecom and India.

“Let’s see what comes out of that conversation,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mittal said Airtel would opt for the payment moratorium, offered in the government’s telecom relief package, and redirect the cash flow to aggressively build networks.

The government on Wednesday approved a relief package for the telecom sector that includes a four-year break for companies from paying statutory dues, permission to share scarce airwaves, change in the definition of revenue on which levies are paid and 100% foreign investment through the automatic route.

Telecom reforms will spur growth, Mittal said, adding that he hoped the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India would look into the industry’s demands for a reasonable reserve price for fifth generation, or 5G, spectrum.

Tariffs need to go up, and more needs to be done on goods and services tax, licence fees, high levies “but that’s a separate chapter”, Mittal said. PTI


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