An indication of where Airtel wants to go with its business now, is possibly something it has announced this morning: a “strategic partnership” with SK Telecom, one of South Korea’s largest chaebols. The focus of the partnership, as per the announcement is on improving its network based on individual devices.

Airtel says that it will use machine learning, big data to build customised tools to improve network planning based on every customers device experience. The tools will help it identify, monitor and deliver improvements on an individual device basis. This sounds implausible, to be honest, to customise network experience differently for, say, five different people in a room, with different devices but no harm in stating that as an intent. Airtel plans to develop its own software for this.

A problem that telecom operators crib about is the number of types of devices in India (often cheap Chinese handsets) which make it difficult for them to optimise the network for users. If the device doesn’t play well with the network, the network gets the blame. Thus there is a legitimate interest in Airtel wanting to improve the network for individual devices.

But what about privacy?

The image in this post (one I took at the Mobile World Congress a few years ago), has never been more relevant to a post than this: Networks that know [that] no two customers are alike.

One will have to be conscious of device specific data collection, given that there is currently a discussion on privacy taking place, and a data protection law in the offing by the end of the year. While data collection might improve network performance, one will also have to be conscious of purpose limitations, explicit consent for specific purposes, the type of data being collected, data retention and also the type of consent being taken. The other thing to keep in mind is that data may be collected for network improvements, but it could be used for services too.

Back in 2015, at the Mobile World Congress, Alex Choi, CTO of SK Telecom spoke about the challenges of balancing privacy and security when it comes to monitoring log data.

To quote: “We believe that customer log data, the usage pattern will give us a better insight on customer needs and behaviors, and again we can utilise those informations to provide more personalised services going forward”…”To be able to exploit the big data opportunities, it’s inevitable for us to access those private data. It’s going to be important to have consensus among the customer community and the operator community, and also the regulator.”

Here’s the video.

Other focus areas of the partnership

The other areas of focus include evolving standards for 5G, Network Functions Virtualisation, Software-defined Networking and Internet of Things, which Airtel plans to introduce in the Indian context.