Do mobile operators have the ability to 'disrupt'?

Bharti Airtel's global CIO gave a fairly rousing keynote speech at TM Forum Live in Nice, France last week. Gently castigating the industry for failing to come up with some of the most inventive developments in recent years--from Facebook through to Instagram and other services that make good use of telecoms networks--Harmeen Mehta tried to incentivise mobile operators to become the "disruptors" in the developing world.

"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 the world's largest hotelier.

Using India and Nigeria as two examples, Mehta said mobile operators now have a very good opportunity to make a difference in markets that are not only "mobile first" but also "mobile only". In such markets, smartphone and internet growth is still in the high double digits, compared with single-digit growth in more developed economies.

The question is, are mobile operators up to the job? Can they be the disruptors in new and exciting markets, where some people's first internet experience is on a mobile phone and where the opportunity to connect the unconnected presents boundless possibilities to build an entirely new customer experience?

Even Bharti Airtel's Mehta extolled a service that frankly sounded little different from what is already very prevalent in European markets. The company's myPlan, cited by Mehta as something that would simplify the lives of users, hardly seems to count as "disruptive", although it certainly provides a flexible way of putting together a plan including voice minutes, texts and data allowances.

It all comes down to speed and agility. Operators are still in the process of transforming their systems to allow them to implement change, launch and monetise new services, and better manage customer service. Let's face it: customer service provided by operators is still woeful in many markets. Changes to service offerings also still take place at a glacial pace, or operators try to confuse customers with a vast array of bewildering and complex pricing options that would put off the keenest smartphone user.

The fast-moving nature of the internet and OTT worlds means that it is still hard to keep up. If operators want to become a more disruptive influence, it requires them to adopt an attitude to possible failure that is more typical of a start-up, as Mehta said. "Fear of failure stops innovation," she added. "We have to change our mindset and our culture."--Anne

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