Bharti Airtel, India's largest service provider, is hoping to improve its network performance and make optimum use of new technologies like 5G through a just-announced tie-up with South Korea's SK Telecom.
The South Korean operator is generally perceived to be at the forefront of innovation on 5G and various other telco technologies. Only recently, it demonstrated a low latency of just two milliseconds on a highly advanced 4G network. It has also expanded the coverage of LTE Advanced Pro, a development of the 4G standard, to around 75 cities in South Korea. Using a radio signal repeater, it has made some headway on overcoming the coverage limitations of 5G in high spectrum bands. And it has already conducted a number of 5G trials. (See SKT Tests Put 4G in Touching Distance of 5G.)
The precise aim of the partnership, says Airtel, is to work on developing "software to dramatically improve network experience, leveraging advanced digital tools including machine learning, big data and building customized tools to improve network planning based on every customer's device experience."
No doubt, the alliance is testament to the growing importance of the customer experience in India. With the market entry of Reliance Jio last year, the rules of the game have changed and retaining customers has become a critical concern. Merging number two and three players Vodafone India and Idea Cellular Ltd. have both recently lost subscribers. By taking advantage of the latest technology and services, Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL) believes it can reduce this kind of churn. (See Where RJio Innovates, India's Incumbents Follow.)
Airtel and SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) also plan to collaborate on 5G standardization activities and in areas including NFV, SDN and the Internet of Things. While India's operators are still focused on expanding their 4G coverage, they are now taking a much keener interest in the emerging 5G standard. Airtel and government-backed Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL) have, for instance, signed an agreement with Finnish vendor Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) to work on the development of 5G technologies. The government is also likely to hold an auction of 5G spectrum before long.
"This partnership will bring a dramatically improved experience to Airtel customers in India by leveraging the expertise of a company that has built one of the best mobile broadband networks in the world," said Sunil Bharti Mittal, the chairman of Bharti Airtel, in a company statement.
Yet it is the continuing challenge posed by Reliance Jio that has driven Airtel into SK Telecom's embrace. Launched a year ago, Jio already boasts about 125 million subscribers, has an up-to-date all-IP network and is not constrained by legacy infrastructure in the same way as Airtel. The market leader is desperately trying to become a more agile player that can withstand the latest assault on its position. Having several years ago committed about $9 billion to an overhaul of its networks, through its Project Leap program, it is now focused on digital transformation through a follow-on initiative called Project Next. But there is nothing quite like calling on the advice of a technology pioneer. (See India's Airtel Takes Digital Leap With Project Next.)
— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading