The much awaited Bharti Airtel will launch its services in Sri Lanka probably next week. Here is an interview with the CEO of the company, Amali Nanayakkara talks to The Sunday Time FT on the future plans of the fifth mobile operator in the country.
When did you get the licence?
In early 2007.
Why is the delay in launching Bharti Airtel?
Bharti Airtel India has a vision of being the most admired brand. Our vision therefore is very much in line with that. How does that translate into a strategy? You will be loved by more customers than the existing operators. That requires your services to be competitive as well as preferred. We are gearing ourselves for a launch, which will meet that kind of an expectation (as explained). That takes time. So we are planning to launch in quarter three of this year. We are well within line of the plan.
Was there any delay for you to launch?
If you consider the time that has been taken for many of the networks to be rolled out, this is probably one of the speediest roll outs in this country. There was no delay.
Was there any snag in terms of government support to roll out your towers, for an example?
No. I think that Bharti Airtel investment in Sri Lanka is one of the key projects that has got government approval. We have a very good support from all government authorities as well as the regulator, Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC). We have no issues at all with any authority.
What about your towers? Will you be sharing with other operators or going on your own?
The sharing of the infrastructure is beneficial for everyone – to the environment, to the population, the country as well as the industry. But the concept of sharing infrastructure is new to Sri Lanka. In India there is already a consortium which develops the infrastructure and ensures that it is available for operators to share. We are very keen to do that and in the future I am sure as the industry develops, there will always be a move towards infrastructure sharing.
How can you convince someone to exchange an existing mobile connection (Dialog for an example) to an Airtel one?
Our strategy would be to bring in a world class mobile service at an affordable price. This means that there are many areas we will focus on. One would be tariff – pricing, network, infrastructure – quality, breadth and width, customer experience, distribution – how far and wide you reach the customers. Each of these elements have to be excelled at in delighting the customers enough to be attractive to switch to Airtel. We will be competitive in all these areas. Our entry strategy has all of these elements.
How do you see the mobile industry in Sri Lanka?
The mobile industry still has potential for growth. We are currently at 38 percent per capita penetration. If you compare Sri Lanka against its neighbouring countries, we are ahead of a couple of them, but we are not as good as Pakistan or India which has 50 percent penetration. But there is always potential for growth. That is when you consider the coverage today and the areas that current players reach. Imagine with the liberation of the North and East there will be another wide space that current operators can move in to.
There is so much growth left. There are four other operators, who are competitive. How much of the said growth are you targeting?
As long as there is growth potential, there is room for any player to move in. We are not talking about an already saturated market.
Would Airtel’s entry see the customer benefiting in terms of pricing?
Competition in any industry helps to improve the industry, because you have to constantly benchmark yourself and identify areas for improvement. This will lead to an improved set of products, services, price, coverage and quality. Ultimately customers will benefit, because all of that will flow down to the customer.
Is this the first time Airtel is venturing to another country?
No. Bharti Airtel already has international operations in Jersey in Channel Islands. Sri Lanka is the second venture out of India and it is the first in Asia for Bharti Airtel.
Why Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka has a very lucrative market in the sense that we have been resilient in all the political or economic crisis that we have had. Both the economic as well as the people have been resilient. With the constant effort in achieving peace and stability in the country there is room for growth in the industry and the economy. That is why there are many industries and regional players targeting Sri Lanka.
Are you a pure product? Do you only focus on mobile services?
Yes. We are currently focusing on mobile industry services.
Are you planning to diversify? Your competitor Dialog is diversifying.
We have plans for future growth. There will be diversification. Based on the mobile operator license that has been issued to Airtel, the company will roll out all services that come under its purview.
Will TV be included?
I cannot divulge details of that now, but we are focusing on mobile phone services.
Maxis entered the country. How do you see this?
We welcome competition, because it helps all players to be on their toes. There will be synergies which they bring in very similar to ours and Bharti Airtel will also have expertise and synergies which it will bring to the market. It is going to be a very competitive industry. How much of a commitment has Airtel made to Sri Lanka? US$ 200 million.
Would you be starting on a 3G platform and first with voice?
Yes.Then we will go on to the data.
Is Sri Lanka a good test market for Airtel?
Certainly not. This is an entry to build a sustainable business.By Duruthu Edirimuni Chandrasekera