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How Bharti Airtel, India's Largest Wireless Company, Will Nudge Customers Into Data Plans

The strategy: Roll out 4G networks, get users hooked on apps and help customers "visualize" the data they are using.

Asa Mathat

There are around 1.2 billion people living in India, and 206 million of them get their wireless phone service through Bharti Airtel, the country’s largest carrier.

Yet, data service makes up only 12 percent of the company’s revenue, chief product officer Anand Chandrasekaran said today in an onstage interview with Re/code’s Ina Fried. That’s something that Bharti Airtel is planning to change.

“For every operator in the U.S., 50 percent of their revenue is from data. Part of my journey is getting that 12 percent to 40 or 50, through 4G and apps and other use cases users love,” Chandrasekaran said at the Code/Mobile conference in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

It’s an ambitious goal for the new chief product officer of Airtel, who joined the company earlier this year. Chandrasekaran was previously an executive at Yahoo, where he was focused on global search and led the effort to integrate Yelp into Yahoo search. He also worked on mobile search during his tenure at Yahoo.

In April, he wrote a post for Re/code detailing his observations about the mobile industry in India following a “market visit.” While India’s mobile market is still emerging — only 10 percent to 15 percent of the more than 900 million mobile users have ever tried using the Internet on their phones, Chandrasekaran says — there’s plenty of opportunity for growth.

Chandrasekaran’s strategy is threefold: Roll out 4G networks, get users hooked on apps and help customers “visualize” the data they are using.

“Think about someone like my mother,” he said. “Think about voice minutes. If she has 100 minutes of voice, and she uses 20, she knows she has 80 left. With data, it’s hard to visualize what 100 megabytes of data looks like.”

When it comes to introducing customers to new apps, Chandrasekaran said that Airtel has tried a lot of handset-bundle offers, but that “free is not a cure-all. Maybe for some services like Facebook or WhatsApp or Youtube, people will understand it if you’re giving them free data for those use cases. … But in most cases, people still don’t understand how much data is required.”

Instead, Bharti Airtel has been attracting users to its own app — specifically a music-streaming app called Wynk, which costs users 29 rupees a month, about $.50 in U.S. dollars. Chandrasekaran shared that the app has gained a million users in 60 days, and is now the No. 1 music app in India in the Google Play store (90 percent of Airtel users are on Android).

“When we launched this, we spent a lot of time talking to the record labels, and found that piracy was a huge issue. So we wanted this to cost even less than using a pirating service. In India, only a few companies like Airtel could make a move that is a market-changing move,” he said.

Chandrasekaran also said Airtel’s expansion of 4G wireless across the country will help drive people into using more data services. Right now, Airtel offers 4G in about 15 cities throughout the country, but hopes to be nationwide in “four to six months.”

Of course, another key driver of data usage is smartphone adoption. India claims 90 million smartphone users, Chandrasekaran says; roughly 40 percent of them are Airtel customers.

An exclusive deal for the last iPhone certainly helped Airtel, he said. Recently, Airtel began offering the new $100 Android One that is targeted at consumers in emerging markets. It’s “too early to say how it’s going to play out,” he said, but the Micromax version of the Android One is the top-selling phone on Flipkart, India’s Amazon, and Chandrasekaran volunteered that it’s in the “top few of phones” for Airtel.

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