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Sunil Mittal at MWC 2022

India’s telecom sector is undergoing a massive change both on the regulatory aspects and on the service delivery side. While the operators now have some stability on the regulatory aspects, they are gearing up to roll out 5G services. BusinessLine met Sunil Mittal at the Mobile World Congress Barcelona, 2022, to discuss the state of the Indian telecom sector, upcoming 5G auctions and the new disruptor in the telecommunications space, satellite communications.

Do you think the 5G auctions in India have been delayed ?
No, you’re here now (in Barcelona), are you using 5G in the factory? Are you missing 5G use cases of drone management, autonomous cars, robotic surgery? Those are real use cases. We are not there yet. Yes, you’ll get faster speeds right. But there will be a desire of the government to start 5G soon. As soon as the recommendations come, auctions happen, within months I would say you will have early 5G networks coming up and thankfully, Airtel has been getting ready for it for a long time now.

How important is the millimetre wave for empowering 5G?
Millimetre waves are an important part of 5G networks. They should also be put up for auction for the terrestrial networks, and equally, there should be a reservation for satellite bands.

Is Airtel sufficiently funded to make 5G a reality?
Yes, absolutely. But we need to see reasonable spectrum pricing. Every country has their own model, China has given spectrum free in exchange for aggressive rollout. That’s one model. So, India will have to choose a model that suits it. Always, it’s a balance between revenue and digital India’s vision– please balance it.

There is a demand from the industry to run private 5G networks
We are there. We will fix their networks, we know how to do it. Why do they need to learn how to run networks? We will run it for industrial enterprises.

Are you in conversation with enterprises?
It is too early, too early. Private networks are still far and few. Let them develop. We are very quick learners. We are connected to the world and we will bring it as soon as they are ready to be deployed commercially.

Are you happy with stability in the telecommunications industry?
Yes, I think the Government of India needs to be commended for what has happened. I would say certainly, we are on the road to recovery.

Do you think Vodafone Idea is out of the woods now?
There’s no direct answer to this yet. There’s a lot of work to be done I think. The company needs serious investments, so I wouldn’t say they are out of the woods yet. But I think with the government’s package, and hopefully some equity infusion there should be some stability.

Has the overall competitive intensity come down?
No, the market is very competitive. That we have lived for 25 years, that’s our life. We are a product of competition. What was required was the regulatory healing touch, which is now coming through.

How do you see India’s chance of becoming a manufacturing hub with schemes like PLI?
I think if there was ever a chance, this is the chance. I can tell you I have always been skeptical about the half-hearted measures. But the work done in the last two years , along with the China issue (geopolitical situation), gives India a very, very strong chance to win now.

Jio has lost a lot of subscribers and Airtel was able to grow marginaly in December….
These are transient things – some go up, some go down, some move in a particular quarter, others in another quarter. When you purge your low-paying subscribers, it will happen. When we did our minimum charge plan, we had to take off 45 million customers. There is nothing to be read here.

Have you seen any subscriber loss due to price hikes?
Obviously, dual sims get rationalised. That’s why you will see no growth. We saw some loss, and some had no growth. 4G bundles still went up, but customer base did not go up because of rationalisation.

Can we expect more Google-like deals?
We work very closely with everybody. We have been exclusive distributors for Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft for a long time. Regarding equity stake, when they come, they’ll come – there’s nothing going on at the moment.

It appears the Government has already decided to auction the satellite spectrum – how will it affect OneWeb’s operations in India?

I keep on hearing about this, but I don’t know what is it to be auctioned? 50 km kilometres of the spectrum? I just need two zones of 50 kilometres, one in north one in south– so what will be auctioned, what is the demand to be auctioned? It is a shared spectrum– everybody will use the same spectrum. Every satellite operator, be it whether it’s the Jio SES, Inmarsat or Intelsat or One Web or Stalink, everybody’s using that spectrum. How can you auction it to one, at the exclusion of others? And if you take 50 km kof spectrum— I will say you take it and I will take the next 50 km kIndia is a large country.

Do you think that satellite broadband is going to disrupt the telecom market?
Zero chance. It’s only for areas where there is no mobile network. There’s no competition. Deserts, jungles, Himalayas, water, aviation. So we are not competing with GSM. I have my own GSM operator (Airtel). The Hindu BusinessLine met Sunil Mittal

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