In the first of three blogs this week that will feature some of the expert insights from the forthcoming 2016 State of Broadband Commission Report, Sunil Bharti Mittal, the founder and chairman of Bharti Enterprises, describes how his company, Bharti Airtel Limited, is building a network to bring broadband connectivity to a billion people in India and contributing exceptionally to using information communication technology (ICT) to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 1 (no poverty).
Over the last two years, mobile broadband subscriptions (including 3G/4G) in India have grown by nearly 2.5 times. But with just 137 million customers and a broadband penetration rate of just 13%, compared with a mobile penetration rate of 80%, India’s digital leap is just starting. Given the massive opportunity to expand broadband connectivity in the country, India is truly the “next big frontier” of the digital world.
To realize this massive digital opportunity, the Indian Government is currently implementing a transformational rural connectivity programme – ‘Digital India’ – which aims to connect 2.5 million panchayats (village councils) through broadband.
Operators are also in the midst of a massive network expansion programme to strengthen their 3G and 4G coverage. As the largest mobile operator in the country and the only one with pan-India 4G and 3G reach, Bharti Airtel has been at the forefront of this expansion drive. With over 36 million mobile broadband customers, besides over 1.8 million fixed broadband customers, it has the largest broadband customer base in the country. While it already has a pan India 3G footprint, its 4G services have been launched in over 300 cities.
Airtel has acquired spectrum worth USD13 billion in auctions and its cumulative investments in mobile business is USD30 billion till date. Currently Airtel is executing a comprehensive three-year network transformation initiative, “Project Leap” necessitating capex investments of around USD 9 billion.
The company will be adding 80,000 new broadband-enabled base stations under the initiative to its current base of 120,000 broadband sites. After expanding its mobile broadband coverage to all towns and over 250,000 villages by March 2016, Airtel is committed to offer mobile broadband to over 500,000 villages over the next three years. It will cumulatively deploy more than 550,000 km of domestic & international fibre to create a powerful, future-ready Internet backbone.
Connecting homes and small businesses is a major priority for Airtel. Alongside its mobile network upgrades, the company is also modernizing its fixed broadband networks, which will enable it to offer 50 Mbps speed from its current 16 Mbps. Rapid scaling up in connectivity speed is a critical focus area for Airtel. Recently, Airtel became the first operator in India to commercially deploy carrier aggregation technology to deliver mobile data speed of 135 Mbps. The company is also planning to deploy fibre to the home, which can offer up to 100 Mbps speed.
Broadband networks are the highways of tomorrow. In India, they also constitute a critical driver of economic growth and inclusion. These networks not only bring the government to the citizens’ doors through e-governance modules but help link producers and consumers to the marketplace as well. Banking, education and healthcare can ride networks to reach citizens in the most remote regions.
India’s Broadband Dream – ‘Extending access to the next billion’ – will be driven primarily by growth in wireless, requiring both massive investment by operators but a supportive regulatory environment as well. The Government needs to address relevant policy and operational issues proactively (such as Right of Way) and, most importantly, to keep in perspective the long-term financial health of the sector while deciding on pricing of spectrum, the lifeblood of mobility.
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