New Delhi: Bharti Airtel Ltd, India’s third most valuable company by market capitalization, benefited from being one of the pioneers when voice communications started moving from fixed-line phones to wireless services. But now, with data access going wireless, it is the company’s arch-rival Reliance Communications Ltd that has taken the lead, launching wireless broadband operations in Pune and Bangalore with plans for a 10-city roll-out by the end of the year.
Mint spoke with Atul Bindal, president of Bharti Airtel’s broadband and fixed-line phone business, about the firm’s broadband strategy and what services Internet users can expect from the company in the months ahead. Edited excerpts:
We have seen other players in the market launch aggressive services trying to tap the wireless data market, but nothing from Airtel yet. Is Airtel getting left behind?
Not at all. We believe that for broadband to become a mass phenomenon and to take it to smaller towns, it has to be wireless. We do not think investing in a copper or fibre network right up to the consumer’s home is going to be a viable business model for smaller towns and rural areas. We are not planning to expand our (copper or fibre-based) broadband business from the current base of 94 towns.
Your competition has already started their services using Wimax. (Wimax is short for worldwide inter-operability for microwave access, a standard that is capable of data speeds of 10 megabits per second (mbps) up to 2km from a radio transmitter. In comparison, third generation (3G) networks promise data throughput of 2mbps and current data-friendly cellular networks deliver speeds of up to 512 kilobits per second.)
We believe that it can go either way (technologically): it can be either Wimax or it can be HSPA (high-speed packet access, delivered on 3G networks), depending on government policy... and we are waiting for the government to come out with a clear
Future force: Atul Bindal, president, broadband and telephone business, Bharti Airtel.
Once that is ready, within about 12-18 months, we will see a mass market for wireless Internet in the country, with speeds in the range of 512kbps to 1mbps (two to four times the speed of most wired broadband connections in the country.)
What can consumers expect from such a service? Will it be targeted only at the PC or do you intend to use the platform to deliver content services as well... say, television channels and video on demand? One of your rivals has been acquiring content companies and building up a base.
Our strategy is going to be a little different. We do not believe that we have to own the content. While consumers can, of course, expect content services, it may not be directly provided by us. We believe in partnering with content owners and we will be only the conduit to reach it to the consumer... and of course, bill and take the revenue back to the content owner. We will not seek to own the content that the consumer tries to access through our service. And looking at the trends in the industry, we believe that content is going to be generated from a variety of sources and it is not possible to cater to all the demands of our customers by generating all the content ourselves.
So, it is not going to be like television channel distribution or IPTV (Internet protocol television) using wireless Internet?
We believe that the traditional form of consuming content, television channels, will be relevant only for time-critical services like news and sports. Most video content will be accessed through non-broadcast means like it is already starting to happen in some countries, and the demand for Internet access will be the main driver for such services. In the US, for example, more people watch the presidential candidate debate on YouTube (Google’s platform for sharing user-generated video content) than by going to the website of the television channel and watching it live. Such alternative platforms for content will become more and more prevalent and we will be a conduit for them.
What will be the price point for such a service to be taken up, especially in the semi-urban and rural areas?
Right now, our DSL (digital subscriber line, a wired broadband technology) user-base of around 700,000 is in the cities. As we move to a wireless model, especially in smaller towns, it will have to be a pre-paid model. The same plan that we offer at Rs999 per month will then have to be priced at Rs500 or so per month.