This is how you help the unconnected go digital: Airtel

airtel unconnected
“You can’t know what they want better than they do.” – Bharti Airtel Global CIO Harmeen Mehta onstage at TM Forum Live! Asia

Connecting the unconnected to digital services starts with the realization that digital services aren’t designed for them, says Bharti Airtel Global CIO Harmeen Mehta.

We hear a lot about connecting the next billion to the internet, but there’s a lot more to it than just the connectivity itself, or even its affordability – it’s also about relevance and usability. There’s no point in connecting people to digital services if they don’t understand them or have no use for them. That’s the starting point for telcos hoping to bring the unconnected into the digital era.

That was the message from Bharti Airtel Global CIO Harmeen Mehta during a keynote at TM Forum Live! Asia in Singapore on Wednesday, using her home market of India as a microcosmic case study.

Mehta described India as a country of disparities. For example, 1% of population holds 58% of wealth; the country hosts some of the top universities in the world yet over 220 million people are illiterate; and the networks are 4G but most people have feature phones rather than smartphones.

That last point means that digital services such as Facebook and e-commerce that are designed for smartphones can’t reach the majority of people in India that don’t have smartphones, let alone a mobile internet connection.

“If being digital is based on smartphones, then we can only serve one-fifth of the population,” said Mehta.

And while the recent launch of low-cost smartphones in India will help in terms of market penetration, the trick is that the apps and services they provide access to appeal more to the 200 million early adopters than to the ‘next billion’ users who haven’t gone digital.

“These services were designed by and for people like us – not for the masses,” Mehta said.

All of which raises the basic question for Airtel and in fact any cellco in India with digital ambitions: “How do you rewire yourself to serve a country like that?”

In essence, Mehta said, you have to start by gaining a deeper understanding of that unconnected billion to get an idea of what services they would find not only useful, but usable – for example, by making services voice-based instead of text-based.

“Even if you can’t read, you can still speak,” Mehta said. “Think about providing services like Siri or Alexa in a localized manner that everyone understands.”

That also means presenting information as visual infographics rather than blocks of text. If you want to show someone in a rural village how much data he is consuming, Mehta pointed out, he has no idea what a megabyte is, but he understands a graphic of a bucket filling up with water. “We did the research on this, and we found infographics work much better.”

And of course it means providing content in the local vernacular rather than English (especially considering that India has 33 official languages).

It takes serious customer research and engagement to understand this, she said. “You can’t know what they want better than they do.”

Reaching the unconnected also means thinking of other ways to serve that may be completely outside your typical portfolio – a recent example being banking services under the Indian government’s scheme to promote digital payments over cash.

“If you live in a village, you have to walk at least 4km to the nearest bank branch, which means taking a day off work,” Mehta said. “This is why financial inclusion is a problem in India.”

Digital banking tackles the problem by enabling operators to convert shops into bank branches. For example, Airtel’s recently launched Payments Bank service gives it the ability to turn its 2 million retail points into bank branches – for perspective, that’s 2 million bank branches via one cellco vs 225,000 branches for all 150 banks in the country.

Once you have a better understanding of what customers want, the next step is, of course, delivering it to them, and Mehta highlighted two key requirements for telcos to be able to do that.

First, it requires a shift from a telco network-engineering mindset to a platform mindset – creating platforms that can deploy new services quickly and flexibly.

And second, it requires partnerships such as the ones that Airtel has struck with retailers. “This is how we will cross that chasm [separating the connected 200 million from the unconnected 1 billion],” she said.

Retailer partnerships not only give Airtel the ability to reach customers more easily, but also helps bring the retailers themselves into the digital business world. In fact, Mehta noted, they have to go digital if they’re going to be able to sell Airtel’s digital services.

“If [a shop owner] knows that the only way he can keep selling our services is to go digital, he’ll learn fast,” she said.

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