My "Journey Beyond the Three Seas" – An Indian Telecom Travelogue

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I love Tver. My parents live in Tver. There are cute neighborhoods in town. Not very good roads, but where have you seen good roads in Russia? Especially refreshing is the crisp pine air in a little forest near Ordzhonikidze Street where we live. Tver is a typical quiet Russian provincial city. It is located a couple of hours by car from Moscow. Nowadays, its old churches and the bank of the Volga River are the only witnesses of Tver's long and diverse history. What is interesting, though, is that Tver is connected to India.

No, Air India doesn't fly to Tver and Aeroflot has not yet launched its first flight from the sleepy Tver airport to New Delhi. But back in the 15th century one simple Russian merchant, Afanasy Nikitin, ventured on a long trip from Tver to India passing the Black and Caspian Seas and crossing a number of countries to reach the western shores of that fascinating and exotic land. He masterfully described his life in India for three years (1471 to 1474). His travel notes “Journey Beyond the Three Seas” became the first Russian report on actual life in old Indian kingdoms, a genuine account of everyday life thousands of miles away from Russia …

There are so many things that connect Russia and India. Nikitin's travels in the 15th century were followed by Peter the Great's mission in the 1700s. Then that ball went rolling all the way from philosophers like Tolstoy and Rerich to the first cosmonaut Yury Gagarin's famous tour of India and a wildly popular Soviet movie, “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears,” in the 1970s. There was the saga called the USSR, long and interesting, starring Indira Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Raj Kapoor, with festivals of Indian movies in Russia and the launch of a joint space crew. And then came 1991: the breaking year for a new Russia and also a powerful year for a new India.

Somehow and somewhere a strategic link between our two countries managed to come undone, and losing momentum we began wandering in our own universes. Building a new democracy did not come easily for either side. Almost two decades have passed since then, and now these two different countries are on the global scene, both quite confident and seeking greater prosperity for their people. Russia and India are now the part of a strong BRIC built in into the world economy. Today our outsourcing companies compete globally and make world-class partnerships; Lakshmi Mittal and Roman Abramovich share the Forbes' dining table; Indians take part in oil production projects in the Russian Far East and Russians are building power plants in India. Still, the level of bilateral trade is minuscule compared to the two countries' potential.

One area where cooperation must prevail is the high tech sector. Both Russia and India annually demonstrate outstanding growth in the ICT industry of 25% +, far beyond the US and EU.

Both Russian and Indian mobile sectors are bustling with a great vibrancy and deliver creative services. Indian companies have truly become the outsourcing yard of the world, and Russian IT businesses are learning fast. Broadband is sweeping Internet into its gigabyted pockets and 3G is zipping around the corner. Russian telecom holdings are knocking on India's telecom doors announcing multi-million-dollar investments, but to no avail – the key to the Indian Telecom Makhal is just not there! To understand better what's happening in the sector, GidaByte and ComNews decided to launch an exploratory trip to India to find out the industry dynamics from the key Indian players. And there I went in early March 2007.

Well, unlike Nikitin's adventures, my first travel to India did last months, but quietly began in the Hong Kong airport, where I flew to New Delhi via AirIndia. In the plane I was seated with a very kind man who happened to be a member of the Jain religion. Amazingly, thanks to Mr. Jain, during our four hour flight I found out a lot about various cultural and religious aspects of Indian life. No need for Lonely Planet!

My story went on in a lovely bed & breakfast in a quiet New Delhi neighborhood. Constantly fed and entertained by a hospitable couple, I felt at home instantly and fell asleep some time after 2 am the next three days were a constant eye-opener for me on Indian business and cultural life. I actually came to India to meet with the elite of the local telecom industry, but found out much more. On top of that, I got a bug. Don't worry, it's not infectious, it's a bug of great interest in India.

Mr. TV Ramachandran's office was my first stop. Mr. Ramachandran chairs the Cellular Operator Association of India, and has been in the telecom industry for quite a while. Proving his words that he truly enjoys what he does, Mr. Ramachandran quickly explained to me that GSM is the way to go, that India is ahead of China in terms of mobile growth and that the 3G era is around the corner, while voice will still be the killer application in the years to come. And I even was able to squeeze a secret from TVR (that's how he likes to be called): “Here is one more personal bet I am going to make, Andrey. This year we will see 8-9 million new mobile subscribers every month. That is going to happen, I think, and you know why? Because more operators are going to push into the rural areas due to the very innovative policy of the Indian Government to provide Universal Service Obligatory (USO) subsidy support for shared wireless infrastructure in rural areas. ”

Beefed up by a great deal of information, I set my sails towards the leader of mobile world in India, Bharti Airtel. Meeting with Manoj Kohli, Bharti Airtel's President, and Sanjay Kapoor, Airtel's President of Mobile Services, provided me with a wealth of data on the thriving mobile industry in India. Traveling through the New Delhi's thick morning crowd to the Gurgaon district, where Bharti's headquartered, was a hassle, but it's worth it to hire an Indian Schumacher! The guy simply flew through the swarms of tuk-tuks, cars, trucks, cows, policemen, you name it! I even managed to complete my morning newspaper by sticking it firmly under my left leg. What a day! But there you go, I reached Bharti Airtel's offices.

Brightly lit with the morning sun, Kohli's office radiated energy. Smiling and confident, it seemed Mr. Manoj Kohli shared with me no less than Bharti's DNA. And I could feel it in him. This man believed in what his company was doing, which is always a key to success. The DNA is the entrepreneurial spirit instilled by the idea-man in charge, Sunil Mittal. Kohli says that “from the Bharti company perspective, we are large, but in the global mobile perspective we are still small. And we'd like to maintain that spirit of a small company and we want to work just like a small company. ” So what is Bharti doing with the tightening competition? “Today competitors may copy virtually anyone's move. The only thing that you cannot copy is our spirit. You cannot fake our passion. That's why we win, ”connected Kohli with a smile.

At another neighboring Bharti building, Sanjay Kapoor, President of Mobile Services, opened his secrets of winning mobile customers via very innovative approaches, be it a famous “Song Catcher” or a new platform for CPs that allow the company to deliver better content for more people. Yet behind all this lies Airtel's people, or in Kapoor's words: “We take a lot of pride in our people. And people want to come and work for us. Right from zonal to operational levels, I think that the caliber of the people who work for us is great. And it is not about the money. People want to be associated with pioneering ideas. People are empowered. ”

After this exposure to the world of the No. 1 Indian mobile operator, it was very important for me to learn more about the conductor of this mobile symphony – Indian Telecom Regulator (TRAI). Soft spoken and very confident, TRAI's Chairman Mr. Nripendra Misra reminded me of a true scholar who really knows his stuff. With impeccable logic and tons of examples, I was immersed in a quick course of telecom liberalization, 3G and DTH. It was short and sweet and on very short notice too. A nice touch of the past was that Mr Misra actually spent some time in my home town – Tashkent, as a part of an Indian government delegation. We are all connected after all!

BSNL Managing Director, Mr. AK Sinha, met me in his office and gave me a comprehensive overview of what his state-backed company has accomplished during these years. Most impressive for me was the fact that it had become the No. 2 GSM operator, winning against strong competition from private mobile operators. This charismatic man was filled with energy and a willingness to compete with anyone, be it a private mobile operator or a foreign competitor. With a great pool of professionals BSNL was set to remain a leader for years to come, said Sinha. The changes in the telecom industry were striking, he said. “Before people were standing in line to get a phone… I know because I've seen it – people came to us and begged that they needed it, say, on medical grounds, etc. and now our people are begging them to buy a phone … so it is a reversal … ”

These changes were no more apparent than in Mumbai. Mumbai looked like the cradle of mankind; with its diverse crowds of people in business suits, turbans, homeless searching among the fresh leaves of green salad, Bentleys of the rich, and screeching and honking of taxis… What could possibly unite this city of extremes, thought I? And suddenly the answer came from the open window of a worn-out Volkswagen, where a local man was singing yet another popular Bollywood melody. Yes, Bollywood brings about that youthful and inspirational vibrancy, helping people dream and dream big! And the fresh proof of my thought was reflected in a cup of black aromatic coffee offered by Neeraj Roy, CEO of Hungama. Roy, a smart man in a crisp light blue shirt and sporting nicely cut gray hair, heads the mobile content and marketing company Hungama Mobile that holds the exclusive rights to Bollywood content. In just thirty minutes of our meeting in between constant calls of business partners and Bollywood stars, Neeraj confessed to me – Bollywood is the killer-application in India – and he is so right!

A helicopter descended at Reliance Communications, while we toured the company facilities, known as the Knowledge City. “There's Mr. Anil Ambani, ”pointed out Mrinal Sapre, Corporate Communications Officer at Reliance Communications, while we were making our tour of the company facilities. “Actually the territory of the Dhirubai Ambani Knowledge City is equal to that of the Vatican,” – added Mrinal, smiling. When we entered Reliance's control center, it instantly reminded me of the Russian Space Flight Control Center in Korolyov. The facility had huge full scale monitors with a live record of the operator's activities around India. Unbelievable! I stared and couldn't finish my second coffee. I truly saw the future of the Indian mobile world, Reliance World.

Mr. Mahesh Prasad, Reliance Communications, President, Applications, Solutions & Content Group, told me that creativity and innovation were real differentiators for Reliance. But again the customer was the focus of its attention, actually two groups of customers. Prasad called them “global Indians, or high end users, and aspiring Indians”. He went on to say that “global Indians are like you and me, they probably have seen and used the best handsets and can afford the newest and the best. That's what is happening in Japan, the US, Europe, etc. These high end customers are fully expecting that Reliance will offer the best of the best technology and services. And we provide that to them. Then in the group which I call the aspiring Indians, there are people who like services based on value. They are gradually improving their lifestyle, spending patterns, entertainment expenditures, etc. ” With these two groups in mind and valuable offers in hand, Reliance is well set to compete and win.

Finally at a cute Indian Café I met with ContentSutra's Editor Nikhil Pahwa, who is a true example of new social media, web 2.0 and beyond. Matter-of-factly Nikhil defined the state of the mobile content sector in India, emphasizing the growing importance of web-media in India. Apparently, ContentSutra, which is a part of PaidContent media company, is growing at a fast tempo, with many new admirers visiting their site and leaving comments. In fact, this is the face of young India sharing their souls via WWW. And this young generation of Indians will be shaping the future of India. After our meeting I realized that India is a universe unto itself and to understand it better one must be present, one must feel the pulse of this sophisticated and rewarding world.

Next year will be the Year of Russia in India, as announced by the President Putin during his meeting with Sonia Gandhi in St. Petersburg in 2005. And this once again symbolizes the great importance of the strong and historic ties between our nations. This message is very clear – let us move on to the next level of cooperation – Russia-India 2.0.

These full interviews with leading Indian mobile operators will appear at: [http://www.gidabyte.com/focus] in GB's May issue.

Andrey N. Gidaspov

New Delhi

March 2007



Source by Andrey Gidaspov

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