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India's richest man Mukesh Ambani and telecom czar Sunil Mittal, whose firms are engaged in a bitter marketplace battle, today described each other as friends as they shared the dais to propagate growth of the telecom industry. Displaying bonhomie, Ambani and Mittal warmly shook hands as they entered the arena hosting the India Mobile Congress (IMC). Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio have, for over the past one year, been at loggerheads on a slew of issues such as points of interconnect, free voice and data offers, asymmetry of network traffic and cut in mobile call termination charges. In their addresses, they referred to each other as friends while Ambani called for forging partnerships to realise Prime Minister Narendra Modi's dream of a Digital India. "We must break silos and forge partnerships. No corporate, nor the government, can do it alone. Together, we can achieve the unimaginable," Ambani said. Since its launch, Ambani's Reliance Jio has been locked in a bitter marketplace battle with older telecom players led by Bharti Airtel. The incumbent operators have squarely blamed the newcomer and its disruptive offers for the worsening financial health of the telecom sector. "Let's not forget India provides a big enough opportunity for all of us to grow and prosper together.
The opportunity to pave the path for our nation's progress and create a better quality of life for every Indian beckon us," Ambani said. While Ambani began his address referring to Mittal as a "good friend", the Bharti Airtel Chairman reciprocated calling the RIL chief a "dear friend". During his speech, Mittal advocated a "collaborative" approach saying, "Clearly, as Mukesh pointed out, none of us can do it alone... We all have to come together. While we compete for head-on for benefit of consumers, we have to collaborate amongst ourselves." Such collaboration would be essential to create a robust ecosystem and ensure that benefits of digital technologies accrue to India, he added. Mittal later told reporters on the sidelines that "if there are going to be three players, we all have to build ecosystem together as much as we can". Asked specifically about the industry's differences over the impending cut in call connect rates, Mittal said, "Those issues have to be kept aside. We have to build India's digital dream and that is what we are working on". Interestingly, after the event, the two left the main hall and visited the exhibition area separately. Telecom Minister Manoj Sinha hoped that the two giants will come together for realising the 'Digital India' dream. Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan said "healthy competition" between the two telcos had benefitted customers. "Twenty years ago, call rates used to be between Rs 19-25 per minute, but because of their (Ambani and Mittal) healthy competition, now there is free talktime, and data is the new oil," he said. Pradhan added that even with low margins, high volumes will drive profits. The maiden edition of the IMC has seen participation from over 300 exhibitors, 2,000 delegates with 1.5 lakh footfalls. The three-day event will include sessions on Digital India, internet governance, women in tech space as well as 5G technologies.