Airtel CEO: It's time for super-cheap smartphones

The mobile market expanded tremendously with low-cost feature phones. Now comes the need to repeat that recipe with under-$100 smartphones, Airtel's Sunil Bharti Mittal says.

Airtel CEO Sunil Bharti Mittal speaking at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain.
Airtel CEO Sunil Bharti Mittal speaking at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. Stephen Shankland/CNET

BARCELONA--Airtel has 250 million customers in India and Africa, but very few of them can afford smartphones, and Chief Executive Sunil Bharti Mittal said that's holding the countries back.

In developing countries, lower-end feature phones today are being used for banking and buying as well as for communications, but smartphones could offer much more, Mittal said at the Mobile World Congress show here.

"Certificates in villages -- birth or death -- become extremely important. Ration cards become very important. All this can be delivered through mobile phones. The difficulty is that we will have to provide very inexpensive smartphones," Mittal said.

He called for the GSMA, a consortium of hundreds mobile operators that got its start in Europe, to spur adoption by placing an order for 100 million smartphones that will sell for less than $100. "Let the best man win," he said, and that handset maker's product will give the mobile operators something they can sell to a much larger audience.

"Today we have phones in the range of $18 to $20. We finally got ultra-low-cost [phones] for our market, which priced open our markets in a big way," Mittal said. "I hope the GSMA will do something similar in the smartphone area too. In India, Africa, and Bangladesh, broadband will be a game-changer," and wireless is the only practical way to bring broadband to most people in those areas.

Inexpensive smartphones are a priority in some quarters. Nokia has a whole division dedicated to affordable phones, including some smartphones, though its Windows Phone effort gets more attention. And Telefonica is backing Mozilla's B2G Web-based mobile operating system as part of an attempt to offer smartphones that cost a tenth of an iPhone's price . Android phone prices also have dropped considerably as companies sought out new market segments.

In countries that aren't so wealthy as in Europe and America, customers behave differently, he added. In Airtel's pricing experiments in Africa, for example, the carrier discovered that cutting usage fees didn't result in more usage, as it expected.

"Every time they saved money on telephony, it went into food," Mittal said. "We must make stronger efforts to bring tariffs down."

 

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