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March - 2008 - issue > How I Got Where I am Today
Don Price - a Prize Possession of Airtel
Priya Pradeep
Monday, March 3, 2008
Sunil Bharti Mittal, Group Chairman and CEO, Bharti Enterprises that owns India’s first private telecom services provider, Bharti Airtel, sent feelers to Norman Donald (Don) Price IV in 2001 to be a part of Airtel. By that time Price had 20 years of experience in the telecommunications industry and had spent a considerable amount of time with various telecom operators in Asia. His body of work was commendable. While at Hong Kong, he led the roll-out of the first Asian Global System for Mobile communications (GSM). His work at McCaw Communications also led him to Indonesia and later provided him the opportunity to deploy Asia’s first Integrated Digital Enhanced Network (iDEN) network in Manila, the Philippines.

Mittal always had Price on his radar for his expertise in building and running communication towers cost-effectively keeping in mind the rising costs of running telecom networks especially in South East Asia. Locations where Price worked include North America, China, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Indonesia. When Price received a call from Mittal, Airtel had set up operations in six circles and was holding licenses for 17 more circles. He joined the company the next year as Director – Technology.

The proposition of this role to Price was the opening of a growth story, an opportunity to be a part of something large. Price elaborates, “When I was working in the Hawaii Islands it was a 36 month growth story; and my stint in Hong Kong lasted for 12 months. Later, both got saturated because there was no more land to expand the network!” India was different to him; the vastness of the land ensuring that to blanket the country with a telecom network would mean an exercise spanning several decades. The growth story to be experienced was therefore phenomenal.

Now Airtel has 65,000 towers operational, with 25 percent of the network being less than six months old. It aims to cover 85,000 villages, which means grabbing around 60 percent of the revenue opportunity in India, for the company in the next few years. Airtel’s market share for mobile services stands at 24 percent and it has 60 million customers. The revenues this fiscal is greater than $4 billion. The company has set a target that by March 2008 the total count of towers would touch 70,000.

The proliferation of towers means big investment and this calls for judiciously keeping the operational and maintenance costs of the towers at a minimum. Towers get heated up quickly hence Price and his team introduced innovative methods of cooling using stacks of chemical-gel cooling packs to replace electric-powered air conditioning. Electrical equipment at the base of the towers needs power, and India’s frequent power disruptions mean the towers need backup generators as well. As an alternative to this, backup batteries were installed without resorting to expensive diesel generators. Thirty percent of the cost of running the network can be attributed to electricity charges and hence keeping this cost down is a primary technical challenge that Price and his team face.

He is now in the seventh year of his India stay and is in no hurry to jettison out of India anytime soon. “I came to India more than half a decade back, before coming to India became fashionable among technocrats. Now, to have India as your work base on your curriculum vitae is a done thing worldwide, especially in the last two years.” It is not all work and no play for Price in India. Of the 23 telecom circles in India - incidentally Airtel has a footprint in every one of them - he has visited all but two. He is still excited about the memorable experience he had on a houseboat upon the backwaters of Kerala and is equally excited about visiting more places in India.

Airtel certainly has had a prize catch in Price, and for Price, India is his prize, courtesy Mittal.

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