Sunil Mittal/ File
Sunil Mittal/ File

Bharti Airtel Chairman Sunil Mittal on Thursday said the Indian telecom market is now down to nearly 2.5 operators as one player is increasingly becoming "a question mark".

Airtel weathered three-four big crises, including disruption caused by launch of Jio in 2016, and has emerged out of market adversities in a healthy shape, Mittal added.

Speaking at the Amazon Smbhav event, Mittal said Airtel had encountered "several near death experiences" in the past and had demonstrated that it is a company which will thrive even in crisis.

Airtel has emerged stronger from three-four big crises and has arrived in a very healthy shape, he said.

"...and of course last, the recent one 2016 the launch of Jio, as one of the most powerful competitors in Indian space, free service for a year, subsidised service for another year, predatory pricing, subsidised phones, all sorts of things, and there is no surprise that 9 of the 12 operators packed up, went bankrupt, merged with us or with each other," Mittal said.

Without taking names, he went on to add: "And today we are down to three private sector operators, in which very clearly one operator is becoming increasingly a question mark. So for a country of our size of 1.3 billion people, we are now down to nearly 2.5 operators...and the last test we have passed again very well".

Mittal's comments may potentially revive the old industry debate around a risk of near duopoly in the market.

Bharti Airtel has been locked in an intense battle with India's youngest and largest telecom company Reliance Jio for a greater slice of fast-growing Indian market.

While the two players have been adding subscribers at a breakneck pace, infusing massive investments in networks and bolstering their footprint, Vodafone Idea has been suffering from subscriber churns and low realisation over past many months.

Apart from the three operators, the fourth telecom player is state-owned BSNL/MTNL.

Mittal recounted "several near death experiences" faced by Airtel, including the phase that company went through in 2003 "when the question was not if but when will Airtel collapse".

Crisis loomed again in 2008-2010 when 12 new licences were given out, creating huge disruption in the market.

Citing the major crises, Mittal said Airtel pulled through riding the storm, increased its market share, improved brand loyalty, brand index and is now onboarding more customers than competition in the last 8-9 months.

"We have added new lines of businesses, we have accelerated our Fibre to Home, many many hundreds of thousands of new homes are being connected every month. Data centres business has come through.

"Our enterprise business is now clearly the leading edge business in marketplace. The DTH business has taken a lead over Dish which used to be largest DTH operator in market place," Mittal said.

Airtel Payments Bank, the group's "newest baby", is making inroads in rural areas and tier 2-3 cities, he said.

Mittal further said India will be a force in the next 5-10 years as a major economy, building its success on industrial upliftment, digital upliftment and self-reliance.

India presents a great opportunity for businesses, given its large base of consumers using more and more products, services and data, and its young population is adding momentum to the GDP and consumption story, he noted.

India is attracting massive FDI and "is the place to be", Mittal observed.

With "data and smartphones in their hands, using services like Amazon, Google, Facebook and several other tech based services coming through whether shared economy services like Uber, Ola, or seeking delivery from restaurants...everything is fast moving to digital platform...

"...these young people who are coming in hordes in mainstream are adding momentum to our GDP and consumption story," he said.

India is also benefiting from "some tailwinds because China is suddenly is not the flavour of the decade", Mittal noted.

"Most people are shifting their business from China to India which would mean more manufacturing coming here, more development coming here, more innovation coming here and in next 5-10 years it is my belief that India will be a major economy, where we will have had industrial upliftment, digital upliftment and importantly more of self reliant and stronger India in the hands of Indians," Mittal said.

Mittal also urged young businesses to make most of the advantage.

"You are today in a time which like no other time, access to capital is easy, technology is on your fingertips, country is large and thriving, there is a big market there for you...put all this together...don't you think you have opportunity like we never had and will you not therefore build businesses which will be strong and resilient," he said.

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