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Airtel to start SL operations by early 2008

Firm's CEO Amali Nanayakkara says, "With an investment of $200 million, Bharti Airtel Lanka Pvt Ltd would begin its service in the island early next year."

india Updated: Dec 30, 2007 15:24 IST

Come 2008 and the burgeoning Sri Lankan mobile phone sector will be seeing a prominent fifth player, the Indian telecom giant Bharti Airtel.

With an investment of $200 million, Bharti Airtel Lanka Pvt Ltd would begin its service in the island "early next year", its CEO Amali Nanayakkara told IANS.

"We are in the process of setting up the network, and getting the necessary approvals from the regulatory authorities. The process, which began in the middle of the current year, should be competed by early 2008," Nanayakkara said.

Asked if Bharti Airtel Lanka had run into any problems, as the services were yet to start though the investment was announced with much fanfare in mid 2007, she said there were no problems.

"All new mobile operators would have to go through the set procedures and processes we are going through. It's routine," she explained.

On Bharti Airtel's USP in a small but overcrowded market, she said as the fifth player, it had to be better than others to make a mark.

"Our focus would be on giving the fullest coverage and displaying technical superiority. How a mobile phone operator connects with customers is another key area of opportunity we are looking at," she said.

Bharti Airtel, which was only recently adjudged the best mobile operator in the world at the World Communication Summit, would help bring down the cost to the Sri Lankan consumer while providing new and exciting value added products, Nanayakkara said.

Bharti Airtel Lanka Pvt Ltd, which is a subsidiary of the Bharti Airtel Ltd, will be giving Sri Lanka 2G and 3G services in collaboration with China's Huawei Technologies. The Bharti-Huawei deal is worth $150 million.

"We see substantial growth prospects in Sri Lanka where the mobile phone subscriber base is over 6 million users," said Bharti Airtel's executive director, Sanjay Nandrajog.

Very soon, half the 20 million people of Sri Lanka may be having a mobile phone, given the rate at which subscriptions are growing, sector sources say.

In the next three years, Bharti Airtel would be covering 70 per cent of the island. The idea is to fully cover the south and central parts of the island and also the east, which are outside the conflict zone.

Restoration of peace in the northern district of Jaffna will lead to a boom in mobile phone sales as the people of Jaffna tended to be high users when services were there. The Tamil speaking district had recorded the highest rate of growth in subscription when peace existed between 2002 and 2004.

However, Bharti Airtel Lanka has an uphill task ahead, because currently 60 per cent of the mobile market in the island is with Dialog Telekom, a unit of Telecom Malaysia.

The rest of the market is shared by Mobitel, a unit of the state owned Sri Lanka Telecom; Tigo, a part of Millicom International Cellular, and Hutchinson Telecom.

Bharti Airtel may well bring mobile phones to the rural areas of Sri Lanka as it is planning to do in a big way in India.

"We want to be the most admired rural brand in India by 2010," Manoj Kohli, President and CEO, had said in Chennai recently.

The $2-billion service provider's customer base in India is currently 54 million and the plan is to increase it to 125 million by 2010, Kohli said.

The company plans to pump in $3.5 billion in the current financial year (2007-08) for its operations in India.

Sri Lanka is Airtel's first overseas venture but plans are afoot to spread its wings to some neighbouring countries, and those in East Africa and the Middle East, Kohli said.