Airtel steps up its response to RJio with $310m Project Next

The dramatic entry of Reliance Jio into the Indian 4G market, armed with free data and a shiny new high capacity network, is certainly provoking radical response from the established operators.

Mobile market leader Bharti Airtel, in particular, is trying everything from acquisitions to a significant network upgrade program to new services. It is being squeezed on multiple fronts – by the new entrant on one hand; and on the other, by the consolidation of its older rivals, notably the proposed merger of Vodafone and Idea Cellular, which would create a new market leader.

Parent firm Bharti is reported to be mulling its own mega-merger, combining Airtel with Tata’s telecoms activities (see Wireless Watch July 10 2017). Meanwhile, Airtel aims to improve its appeal to high value customers so that it does not have to resort merely to price-cutting in order to take on RJio. It has announced that it will launch Voice over LTE – which only RJio, with its 4G-only network, currently offers – this year, and has kicked off trials in five cities. This could help Airtel compete with its new rival’s policy of giving all voice away for free (it also gave away data as an introductory offer but was forced to cut that promotion short after legal challenges).

Airtel has also introduced a data rollover option enabling customers to carry over up to 200GB of data left unused from the previous month.

These changes are part of a broad-reaching Project Next digitization program, designed to transform the customer experience with a combination of new services, tariffs, websites, applications and in-store support.

For instance, a new Family Promise program will allow higher value postpaid customers to develop multiple customized plans for each family member using the MyAirtel app, enabling savings of up to 20%. The operator has also introduced Airtel Secure, a digital smartphone protection offering that will allow customers to protect their smartphones against accidental or liquid damage. Airtel expects to add further initiatives as part of Project Next over the next 12-18 months.

The operator will invest up to INR20bn ($309.8m) on the initiative, claiming it will lay the foundations for it to become a truly digital service provider. This sees it trying to win customers, at least at the higher ARPU end, with quality and convenience rather than with price alone.

Its ability to do this will be higher than it would have been, had RJio launched 2-3 years earlier, as was once expected. Then, Airtel would have had to respond to a new player with a modern, LTE-only network, with its own network in a far less good state. But it has been modernizing its RAN and core under the Project Leap plan, unveiled in December 2015, which will see $9bn invested in new infrastructure and digital technologies.

Project Leap will see Airtel doubling the footprint of its mobile network, with a particular focus on urban LTE, WiFi and rural expansion. It will also deploy a fiber-to-the-home network and will harness a combination of fiber, small cells and WiFi to improve indoor coverage. This is very poor in many parts of India and limits the operator’s ability to offer premium services, especially to enterprises.

“Our large customer base covers rural, urban, homes and enterprises and we are obsessed about delivering an exceptional experience for each one of them,” said Gopal Vittal, CEO of Bharti Airtel India & South Asia, in a statement at the time. “We are confident that this new initiative will deliver a truly differentiated customer experience and reinforce our commitment to build a future-ready network.”

The company has deployed 180,000 base stations since 2015 – equivalent to the number it rolled out over the previous 20 years. Many are using new compact Single RAN designs which will reduce power consumption by up to 70%. It will double its current macro footprint, plus adding 10,000 hotspots and small cells indoors.

It has already extended mobile broadband coverage to every town in India and 250,000 villages, with a further 250,000 villages to be added by the end of 2018. It says it will connect every small and medium enterprise either with fiber, vectored copper or LTE in the same period. Airtel now claims the widest 3G and 4G network coverage in India, reaching all the country’s 22 operating circles, and it has also been rated the fastest network by speed testing firm Ookla.

In April this year, the operator said it had also doubled its total transmission capacity and increased its mobile backhaul capacity eightfold. It has added over 14,500 kilometers of fiber to its national backbone along with 3,666 new fiber POP nodes.

Abhay Savargaonkar, director of networks, said: “Airtel has been at the forefront of India’s telecom growth story and this record deployment underlines our commitment to building a world-class network of the future that will serve a digital India. This deployment will leverage our spectrum capacity and is yet another benchmark by Airtel in execution excellence. We are now in a position to ramp up future capacity on this network very quickly, giving us unmatched reach and agility.”

Also on the carrier’s mobile shopping list are some of the emerging technologies that will make sense of all this infrastructure – SON (self-optimizing networks), SDN (software-defined networking), location aware planning tools and customer experience management (CEM) solutions.

“We are confident that Project Leap will help Airtel build a smart and dynamic network that will significantly improve the quality of both voice and data services across the length and breadth of the country,” Vittal said.