Airtel’s $100B Milestone: Stable Economy & Strong Leadership, says Sunil Mittal

In September 2018, Bharti Airtel’s journey took a significant turn after a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This meeting marked a crucial moment for the company. Recently, on May 27, Bharti Airtel’s market capitalization crossed $100 billion, a huge milestone. Sunil Bharti Mittal, the chairman of Bharti Enterprises, the parent company of Bharti Airtel, spoke to Romit Guha and Kiran Rathee about this achievement. He emphasized that Airtel’s success reflects India’s stable economy and supportive policies under strong leadership.

Looking back, Mittal described Airtel’s journey as a rollercoaster ride with many challenges. Becoming a $100-billion company is a big deal, especially for a first-generation Indian company like Airtel. Only a few companies globally have achieved this milestone, including Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, China Mobile, and now Bharti Airtel.


Airtel faced tough times, especially after the disruptive entry of Reliance Jio in 2016 and the adjusted gross revenue ruling in 2019. The company’s market cap plummeted to $19 billion, causing worry. However, within five years, it bounced back, adding $80 billion. Mittal reminisced about his journey from selling bicycle parts in 1976 to venturing into telecom in 1992 and navigating through various challenges.

He highlighted some of Airtel’s most difficult moments, including the Jio launch in 2016, which led to a sharp decline in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) due to free services. The company had to lower tariffs, resulting in losses and high debt. Regulatory issues added to the pressure, with new regulations emerging constantly.

Mittal also mentioned past challenges, such as the competition from Reliance in 2000-03 and the entry of new players in 2008-09, which affected Airtel’s market share and revenue. However, he stressed that the impact of Jio’s free services in 2016 was unprecedented due to its extensive network and strong financial backing.

Overall, Mittal acknowledged the tough times Airtel faced but expressed gratitude for overcoming them and reaching the $100-billion mark, attributing it to resilience, innovation, and the supportive environment fostered by India’s leadership.

Meeting with the Prime Minister

In 2018, I met with the Prime Minister because I was concerned about the telecom industry. As the chairman of GSMA and having just finished my term as chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce, I had briefed him on various global issues before. So, I asked for his permission to discuss the troubles facing the Indian telecom sector. I expressed how dire the situation was becoming and that I could handle competition in the market but not the government’s actions. He assured me that the government wouldn’t favor anyone and would only act in the country’s best interest. That assurance gave me the confidence to continue competing in the market. This meeting was a turning point for me and my company.

Change in Perspective

After this meeting, I felt inspired. The Prime Minister’s message was clear: focus on your work, and the government will do what’s right for the nation. This helped me see regulations in a different light. While some regulations seemed unfavorable initially, I realized they might benefit the country as a whole. Over time, I noticed a change in regulations, with some of the heavier restrictions easing off.

Regarding favoritism in the telecom sector, there were concerns, but I believe things have become more balanced now. The government has been actively involved in reforms that benefit the industry as a whole. However, there are still some lingering issues, mainly related to legal battles.

As for why foreign companies hesitate to enter the Indian market, it’s partly due to past challenges and the dominance of established players. Setting up operations in India requires significant investment and effort. What Reliance did with Jio was remarkable, and it takes a combination of factors like a strong balance sheet, execution capabilities, risk-taking, and favorable regulations to replicate that success.

While Airtel has made significant progress, we are still competing closely with Jio. Our focus has always been on professionalism and attracting top talent. This approach has helped us build Airtel into a respected institution, not just in India but across many countries.

Regarding diversification into other sectors like retail and insurance, we’ve faced challenges, but our primary focus remains on telecom and related infrastructure. However, we keep exploring opportunities in areas like financial services through ventures like Airtel Payments Bank.

As for potential acquisitions like Paytm, it’s not currently in our plans. We’re more focused on strengthening our existing businesses.

Jio’s Entry

Regarding Jio’s entry into Africa, it’s a welcome move, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate a larger expansion. Similarly, any potential tariff hikes in the telecom sector depend on market conditions and regulatory decisions.

Overall, our journey has been about resilience, innovation, and adapting to changing circumstances. We’re proud of what we’ve achieved so far and remain committed to serving our customers and contributing to India’s digital growth.

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