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In a serious conflict

On learnings in terms of bringing people and communities, governments and international partners, together.

Be it India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, or Sub-Saharan Africa, Airtel operates in countries, which are woefully inadequate in infrastructure and will take a long time to build the physical infrastructure.

The only way we could have brought people together in an accelerated manner was by way of a digital highway, and thanks to partners as Cisco, the kit they provide us has become more and more efficient and powerful over the years, as an industry, we have together invested billions and billions of dollars, maybe over a trillion across the globe by now and built digital highways. These have not only provided remarkable connectivity but also brought marginalized people into the mainstream of society and the economy.

Yet, much more still needs to be done!

The advanced world enjoys the benefits of being a connected world, with complete access to the internet. This includes Singapore, the US, and other developed countries. And they were there 23 years back. Compared to this, a mere 27 percent of the less developed countries and 57 percent of the developing countries are on the broadband highway. It has taken us so long to get here, and still, we have not been able to do enough. We have a long, long way to go.

The telecom industry estimates that it will need USD 430 billion by 2030 to create the digital highways. And with intervention now coming from space and 5G, it seems even by 2030 a large part of the world may remain bereft from the advantages of being on the internet and with the world economy. Companies that have jumped on the bandwagon are already reaping the rewards and accelerating their growth and their career paths.

However, people not connected are suffering immensely, and that is one of the major reasons for the increasing disparities. The mission for all of us, and that includes the UN General Assembly charter on SDGC, is that we need to accelerate this process, and need participation beyond just from the telecom companies.

The pandemic has been an eye opener. If we would have not been able to manage the networks, and shift connections from urban to rural centers, or from offices to homes, the world could have been up in flames. The telcos seamlessly moved traffic, provided subscribers connectivity, and ensured that daily lives were not disrupted. Buying of groceries, etc., was not impacted, medicine supplies continued, and adequate medical care was available. Financial transactions did not stop for even a day. If this can be recognized by political leadership all across the world, it will help in accelerating and bringing almost everybody onto the internet in the next 10 years.

The world lauds what we have done, and appreciates the immense value from the digital highways. However, there still remains too much load on our industry in terms of spectrum, auctions, and taxes, and although you hear all the right things, not enough action is being taken by the governments toward a multiplier impact on societies and economies by way of more digital highways.

On how Airtel, an Indian enterprise with a global footprint, navigates the political movement, given the US-China bipolarity and multi-polarity with many others joining the political conversations.

The world has become much more difficult. We did not imagine that suddenly the supply chains of the world will be disrupted to a level that we are seeing today and it is not just the telecom industry. There is some or the other disruption in almost every section, from food to technology.

Chinese equipment being supplied at a great pace, competitive pricing, and of decent technology is out of the equation now. The space industry which was very largely dependent on Russia too is out of the equation. Roscosmos is not expected to be announcing any launch for the Western world, or for rest of the world, for many years to come. There has been supply chain disruption to a very high degree.

Smart and agile businesses and companies that have tried to shift have managed to move, albeit at a very heavy cost. Silicon is now 30–40 percent more expensive than earlier. Devices earlier expected to become cheaper, making smartphones affordable to many more people, continue to be out of reach. In fact, they are priced considerably higher now.

I really hope that we can bring back the global supply chains to sanity, and continue to service our customers. We are in a serious conflict at the moment!

Sunil Mittal, Founder and Chairman, Bharti Enterprises, in dialogue with Samir Saran, President, Observer Research Foundation at Advancing Digital Cooperation, World Economic Forum, 2022, Davos, May 25, 2022

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