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Published on: April 19, 2021, 3 a.m.
A story of grit and resilience
  • The rise of Airtel

By Ashok Advani

Sunil Mittal and Airtel is a story of grit and resilience.

Many of our readers will recall that Sunil Mittal was Business India’s Businessman of the Year, as far back as 2002. As Sunil has often said, this was the first major recognition by a national magazine. Many awards and accolades followed as Airtel became the largest player in India.

Sunil, who won the Delhi licence, was one among the first 8 licensees, with two licences being granted for the four major metros in November 1994. Interestingly he is the only one amongst the original licensees to have survived to date (though Vodafone’s licence dates back to the same time, but under different ownership then). Starting from virtually scratch, with a small business background and roping in the GSM experience (a licence precondition) of a tiny player from Mauritius, Sunil saw off competition from several major business houses including Tatas, Birla and RP Goenka, public sector BSNL and Reliance, then under undivided Mukesh and Anil Ambani. Several of them had tie ups with major foreign companies. Sunil himself, in good time, roped in Singapore giant, Singtel, but keeping majority control with the Mittal family.

Having built the largest and most successful telecom company, remaining on top was not easy. At the peak he acquired Africa’s second largest telecom group, Zain, at a price many felt was overpaying. And several analysts felt that it could seriously damage the group. But more recently having turned the group around and successfully listing it in London, the price was vindicated and the cash flows have been of enormous help. 

And then came the epic battle with a newly invigorated Mukesh Ambani who decided to storm the telecom market and build Jio into the largest telecom company almost at any cost and taking no prisoners on the way. Many other telecom players fell by the wayside, including Tatas, and also RCom, run by brother Anil. Kumar Mangalam Birla’s enormously successful Idea was virtually forced into a marriage with Vodafone. And speculation was rife as to when Sunil would fold his hand, or sell out to Singtel, with its deep pockets to match Mukesh Ambani’s. 

Apart from the stiff competition, the Supreme Court ruling on AGR almost two years ago, was a death blow to several companies. Sadly, the Government did not intervene, by using, if necessary, its retrospective legislative powers, to correct what was a wrong judgement in the eyes of many senior jurists. 

But after fighting doggedly for almost three years, Airtel is a healthy and strong competitor to Jio. Though smaller on some counts than Jio, (particularly on subscriber volume), it stands shoulder to shoulder, Airtel is clearly a long-term competitor to Jio. Speculation is rife about Vodafone Idea (compounded by the AGR ruling). Of course, whether the telecom sector should have only two players is another issue, for another time. In this time’s cover story, Ritwik Sinha looks at the Airtel of today. There are many major challenges ahead for the whole sector, including the coming 5G wave. India cannot afford to be left behind.

It is clear that Airtel is as strong as ever. It has emerged as a major global player in telecom. And Sunil Mittal and Airtel show the best there is in Indian business.

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