Bharti Airtel's global CIO said developing markets in Asia and Africa present a very different opportunity for operators to disrupt "a lot of things in this world" because they are not only "mobile first" but also "mobile only" economies.
Speaking in a keynote session at TM Forum Live in Nice, France this week, Harmeen Mehta noted that over-the-top and virtual players have proved to be the more inventive companies in the developed world, creating new and successful businesses without actually owning any assets.
"We are actually living in the digital age," Mehta said. "Owning assets is not important," she added, noting that Uber does not own any cars but is the biggest taxi company in the world; Alibaba does not own any inventory and is the biggest retailer in the world; and Airbnb does not own any property yet is on track to becoming world's largest hotelier.
"If you don't need to own all the assets to be the largest taxi company does a telco need to own all the network? In the future, will the largest communications provider be a telco?" she asked. "We need to reflect now as all this disruption erupts around us. We don't need to stand back on the fringes and watch."
Developing markets with their strong focus on mobile connectivity offer big opportunities for operators, she said. The need for speed and agility becomes make or break, she added.
For example, she cited mobile payments as an area where operators can really take a leading role, noting that in India there are three times the number of mobile phones compared to bank accounts.
First, operators have to change their mindset and culture, she added. "Start-ups have no fear of failure unlike telcos," she said. "This fear of failure stops innovation."
"We are living in a world of endless possibilities," Mehta said. "We just need to keep an open mind."
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