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Anand Agarwal, CEO and director, Sterlite Technologies

January 14, 2016
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Dr Anand Agarwal is a Sterlite Technologies veteran. He joined the company in 1995 to work in quality assurance, then moved across functions and responsibilities, was made general manager in 1998 to focus on setting up the optical fibre business, was promoted to chief operating officer and then took over as chief executive officer (CEO) in 2003 to lead its global telecom and power business.

Having been a part of this sector for long, Agarwal notes that the industry has come a long way, to the point today where it is seeing significant changes in data consumption patterns. “We have seen a growing demand for bandwidth and high speed data transmission with minimum losses. To enable this, there is a visible dependence on fibre as the most suitable medium of data transmission. There are also public initiatives like Digital India, Smart Cities and Make in India, which will be beneficial for the country,” he says.

A graduate in metallurgical engineering from IIT Kanpur, Agarwal has a master’s and a Ph.D. in materials engineering from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the US. After finishing his Ph.D. in 1995, work offers poured in. One that he still remembers was the opportunity to work as a research associate with a leading optical fibre manufacturer. But he chose to come back to India immediately after completing his doctorate because of his desire to make “things happen here”, even though he knew that the business climate was difficult.

He joined Siemens, which was planning to set up an optical fibre venture. The project had been at the planning stage for two years. He started off in the quality control department of the proposed optical fibre cable plant but found that the environment was  not congenial for him at that stage of his career.

He then joined Sterlite and has not looked back since. Agarwal believes that Sterlite is uniquely positioned as a leader in creating digital infrastructure in the country. The government’s focus on projects such as BharatNet (earlier called National Optical Fibre Network) and defence networks will also be part of Sterlite’s focus on building the country’s data infrastructure.

“Technological advancements in the country have not been at an adequate pace. We see this as a big challenge, which is hampering effective broadband penetration,” he says, “With an increasing percentage of users accessing the internet through mobile devices, the user experience is directly proportional to the availability of towers or cellular sites. The fibre backhaul of these towers plays a crucial role in the efficient transmission of data,” he adds.

In most countries, towers and small cells are typically connected through optical fibre. In India, most of the backhaul is through microwave spectrum instead of optical fibre, which is a superior medium for efficient data transmission. With India on the verge of a 4G revolution and the Digital India initiative being launched, fiberisation of towers has become the need of the hour, he says.

With this in mind, Sterlite is working on building capabilities across the data transmission segment. The company’s Telecom Research Centre of Excellence at Aurangabad was, in fact, set up to take India’s data transmission to the next level by enabling operators with world-class data transmission technologies.

The company is also working with the government on some major projects that will go a long way in transforming the telecom landscape. One of these is the Network for Spectrum (NFS) project, wherein Sterlite is implementing an end-to-end optical fibre-based intrusion-proof network in the difficult terrain of Jammu & Kashmir. The NFS project will help release 150 MHz of spectrum held by the defence sector in the 1700 MHz to 2000 MHz frequency range.

Sterlite offers not only optical fibre-based products but also expertise in planning, designing, implementing and managing system integration and network integration solutions. Beyond products and services, Sterlite is fuelling broadband-based applications in e-healthcare and e-education.

When asked about future trends, Agarwal uses the analogy of electricity and its role in industrialisation. “Just as countries that invested heavily in electricity more than a century ago became economically empowered, so it will be with the internet. A country’s GDP growth is directly linked to broadband penetration. The problem currently is that only a limited number of people globally have access to true broadband. We expect that the efforts towards enabling this will increase multifold in the coming years,” he says.

He points out that services riding on the internet are fast replacing telephone services as one of the basic utilities. Indeed, the internet, he argues, should now be treated as a basic necessity like water and electricity. Only then will it be possible to implement a broadband network across India without the typical hurdles of right of way.

“In terms of broadband speeds, if we compare India to most countries where the download speed standard has been raised to 25 Mbps (US Federal Communications Commission [FCC]), we have a long way to cover with a 512 kbps minimum speed. The FCC revised its 2010 standard definition of 4 Mbps to 25 Mbps, citing a major change in consumption patterns and technology advancements,” he says.

There are lessons to be learnt here, Agarwal notes. According to a recent industry report, India and the Philippines, with broadband adoption rates of 6.9 per cent and 8.8 per cent respectively, are the only two countries in the Asia-Pacific region that have adoption rates of below 10 per cent.

The question that India should be asking itself, he says, is why are the broadband penetration targets so conservative despite the government’s Digital India and Smart Cities initiatives? Technology and data consumption patterns are changing very fast and what industry experts predicted as sufficient a few years back is not going to be sufficient any more.

The belief that India must move on and prosper has been a guiding motif throughout his career and never more so than now with Digital India to be excited about. In terms of core fibre, he says that Sterlite has the capacity and capability to supply to the local industry. He is talking to the government for overall implementation and execution of Digital India infrastructure by providing end-to-end equipment through the system integration capability that it possesses.

As to the National Optical Fibre Network programme’s focus on connecting 50,000 gram panchayats and later connecting 200,000 gram panchayats, Sterlite is open to playing any role it can to enable the government to connect the remaining gram panchayats.

“We will do whatever is suggested by the government for Digital India infrastructure as we are open to all kinds of business models. For creating Digital India infrastructure, the country can be divided into different zones for the project to be executed by a turnkey provider while meeting service level delivery key performance indicators,” he says.

Sterlite is also eyeing a substantial share of the Rs 200 billion worth of transmission projects slated to come up in the power sector this year. Agarwal believes there are huge opportunities for private players in this segment and intends the company to leverage these.

In his career, Agarwal has displayed an appetite for risks and challenges. In his personal life, he has a wry sense of humour, as a feature on him in The Economic Times in June revealed when he answered some zany questions:

Best drive? Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Morro Bay.

Goofy traveller moment? Detained at Heathrow after travelling from Frankfurt on an expired visa. I was sent back after thorough investigations for several hours (while sitting with other folks in immigration, who were seeking asylum in the UK), and Lufthansa was fined for not checking my visa prior to travel.

Bazaar bargains? I love shopping in Ubud in Bali for great bargains.

Interesting strangers? Shared an overnight ride from Frankfurt to Amsterdam with a complete stranger, a Dutch gentleman, as the airport was hauled by snow. We got the last car available at the airport and drove through the night to Amsterdam. I did not have enough cash to pay my share then, and he agreed to me wiring the money to him later. We developed a strong friendship through the drive and have stayed in touch ever since.

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