Saturday, September 24

What happened to Airtel: the pioneering Spanish operator that ended up swallowed up and “resurrected” years later in Albacete


Maybe you remember. Or not. That depends on how many springs you spend.

The fact is that there was a time when in Spain the start of Christmas was not marked by Abel Caballero pressing the button of an XXL tree with more Led lights than Disneyland to the cry of “Very welcome everybody here!” No. Back in the 90s we found out that the holidays were about to fall because the commercial breaks on TV began to be loaded with spots with golden and burgundy reflections and the jingle of jingle bells. There was the one from Freixenet, AntiuXixona, the one with the “bald man from the Lottery”, El Almendro and perhaps the dean of the deans, the one with the Famosa dolls.

Also that of “Hello, I’m Edu, merry Christmas!”, which marked an era for late 1997.

If memory plays tricks on you —or you weren’t even born— nothing happens. After all, her script fit on a napkin. Basically, he showed us a six or seven-year-old boy lounging on a sofa calling half of Spain to congratulate him on the holidays while a voiceover sold us, in the background, the benefits of the latest promotion from his telephone operator.

A time of change… and expectations

If it were only that, the spot would have its grace and perhaps deserved a discreet mention in the Spanish advertising chronicle. Simple, fun and endearing. Spot. Beyond Edu’s catchy catchphrase, however, he had an interesting background for the homeland history of communications.

The firm that was advertised was Airtel, which was the second Spanish operator, emerged only a few years before to break the monopoly that Telefónica held in mobile telephony. To be more precise, in the field of digital system OSM (Groppe Special Mobile), the most advanced.

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Like Edu’s Christmas cards, Airtel today serves little more than to feed nostalgia; But is it worth it remember your story: how his brand was born, grew and became engrossed.

The origins of Airtel date back almost to the early 1990s, to one of the most important chapters in the history of Spanish telephony: the liberalization of national mobile telephony, until then a monopoly in the hands of Telefónica. Some time before they had faced a similar process in other parts of Europe, such as the United Kingdom, Germany or neighboring Portugal.

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Here, in Spain, expectations were optimistic, although of course very far from what mobile telephony would end up assuming. In the 90’s -remember The vanguard— it was calculated that the domestic market would eventually become saturated with eight million users. Telefónica’s own Moviline had barely half a million clients with analog technology.

More or less correct, the expectations were juicy enough to capture the interest of two major offers: the Cometa SRM consortium, a group led by BBV, and the Airtel-Sistelcom-Reditel consortium, a large conglomerate that included Airtouch and BT Group or the Central Hispano and Santander banks, among other large firms. The award went to the latter.

In 1995 it was authorized to provide mobile phone services: it started in October and by the end of the year it had 15,000 customers. “Airtel puts an end to Telefónica’s monopoly”, headlined The countrywhich highlights how the old company was facing a change of scenery after seven decades.

Over the following years he would manage to get a juicy slice of the Spanish communications pie. In 1996, it already had 652,000 clients and a year later it expected around 1.2 million subscribers. By 1998 its market share was approaching 31% and the company was starting to make a profit. The scenario was not entirely bad either: once the sector of fixed telephonyIn December 1998, Airtel received a license for this type of network.

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Ironically, that brand that Edu announced so gracefully in 1997 had three newscasts left. The reason? business movements, changes of ownership and expansion plans towards foreign markets. In 1999 the Vodafone Group took over Airtouch, one of the firms that controlled Airtel, which allowed it to acquire 21.7% of the Spanish operator. Shortly after, he managed to expand his control a little more and in 2000, prior to Brussels’ approval, to 74%.

By 2001, the Vodafone Group already owned 91.6% of the company, a magnificent cruise ship for expansion. In February, the British multinational already announced its intention that Airtel would be renamed “Airtel Vodafone”, a philosophy also applied to companies in other countries under the control of the English operator, and not long after the old local banner had completely disappeared. replaced by the much more corporate “Vodafone Spain”. Vodafone maintained the registration of the Airtel brand, yes, for a few years, until 2017, when it stopped renewing it.

Not keeping the record would end up weighing him down.

And leaving, by the way, a curious chapter in the Airtel chronicle.

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That old standard so recognized in the Spanish market was “orphaned” ended up attracting the interest of a group of businessmen who wanted to revive it. In a marketing move worthy of Berlanga, the brand was advertised again in 2020… Only without any kind of link with Vodafone. The new one in charge of exploiting it was a small company from Albacete, an OMV that took advantage of the situation to get hold of the name and logo. And make your pull profitable, of course.

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“It’s not the same Airtel. The brand is really coming back, it’s not Vodafone who takes it out,” they explained to us from the company, which nevertheless included comments on its website that could lead us to think the opposite, like this ambiguous business card: “Airtel is back!!! Known by many of you as the Second National Operator in the 90s, removing the monopoly from Telefónica, it has come back again adapting to new technologies”.

“Vodafone let the brand not be renewed and we saw it and brought it to light. We have not done anything that cannot be done. I want to deceive anyone, we are not Vodafone”, explained one of its directors to Xataka Movil in 2020 Vodafone did not like the move one iota, which did not take long to launch its legal machinery: “registration, like the use of distinctive elements of Vodafone, constitute both a trademark and copyright infringement.”

The Albacete renaissance of the old operator from the 1990s would not last long. At the beginning of this year it was revealed that the OMV website (Airtel5g.es) had been inactive for months and even its social network accounts had been closed. In June Broadband went a little further and revealed that Vodafone had regained ownership Of the brand.

It is not a bad coda for one of the historical banners of Spanish telephony.

Edu, by the way, would still congratulate us on Christmas years later, only now with a beard and on behalf of another company in a nod to change of times and the market.

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