Bharti Airtel, the second-largest mobile operator in India, has been the central player in two very different news stories, both of which nevertheless underline the highly competitive nature of the Indian market.
The recent acquisition by Bharti of a local start-up, AuthMe ID Services, which is developing artificial intelligence (AI) services, could boost Bharti’s efforts to improve customer service with digital initiatives.
AuthMe ID Services’ core team will join Airtel X Labs in Bengaluru, the capital of India's southern Karnataka state. The aim of Airtel X Labs is said to be to drive innovation in AI, IoT, and augmented and virtual reality, something that the new acquisition will support. If successful, Bharti’s aim of rolling out intuitive digital products, particularly in vernacular languages, for customers who number in the hundreds of millions, could prove a strong selling point in a highly competitive market.
Airtel has also acquired the intellectual property rights for two of AuthMe’s flagship services: Callup AI, a chat and voice assistant that uses AI to resolve customer queries by email, chat and phone calls; and Fintech OCR, an end-to-end optical character recognition (OCR) application built for financial documents. Airtel says that the application can be customised to process known formats of other documents and can pick up any language with standard fonts.
On a very different note, not long before this acquisition hit the headlines it was announced that Bharti Airtel is to refinance €1 billion of debt in a deal struck with a group of major banks.
The debt was initially raised by Airtel’s Netherland's-based subsidiary which oversees the company's operations across Africa, using a series of bonds that were due to mature in December 2018. Bharti Airtel has about 50 million subscribers in Africa, in addition to an estimated 377 million subscribers across India.
The aim of the refinancing package is to help Airtel to restructure its finances. It should also give it some breathing space in an extraordinarily competitive market where ongoing price wars have hit the revenues of many players.