Reliance Industries’s Mukesh Ambani is presenting himself as the next digital czar: in speeches this month, he made it very clear that his plans with Jio extended far beyond just access to telecom services. On October 5, he delivered what was essentially a manifesto for Reliance’s digital plans — calling data a “national resource” and talking about how AI would revolutionise healthcare, farming, education, and set India on a path to rapid economic growth. Meanwhile, Jio is reportedly working to launch 5G handsets at less than Rs 5,000, according to a PTI report. This is similar to JioPhone and LYF, two efforts the company has leveraged in the past to win over 2G phone users.
Reliance’s own ability to profit from yet-unrealised advanced technologies that sit on top of telecom depends directly on how many people it can reach. And by that yardstick, Jio faces the ultimate impediment of its own telecom network: tens of millions of Indians continue to use 2G handsets, and those phones cannot connect to the Reliance-owned telco’s network. Jio’s network doesn’t support older technologies like 2G and 3G. While having an “all-IP” technology that is 4G-only (or higher) is impressive, it limits how big Jio can get — and subsequently, the reach of the digital services the company plans on delivering over its network.
“The faster we embrace technology, the faster we adopt new technologies and adopt the future industries, we will be better off,” Ambani said at a book launch on Monday, according to a transcript distributed by Reliance. This truism is as evident as it is self-serving. More 2G handset users upgrading to handsets that support Jio’s networks is works in the favour of the company — and Ambani has forcefully condemned 2G’s continued prevalence, calling for India to become “2G mukt“, or free from 2G. With cheaper 5G handsets — along the lines of the cheap LTE JioPhone — Jio may boast of tapping India’s unrealised digital potential. But expanded access with cheaper handsets is equally an effort to tap Jio’s hitherto unreachable market.