Between March and November last year, India’s richest man received more than $27 billion to bet on the future of the internet, even as the coronavirus darkened people’s lives and crippled economies around the world.
The beneficiary of all these billions is Jio Platforms, part of the widely held conglomerate Ambani Reliance Industries. Jio began operating as a mobile network in 2016. Since then, the company has amassed nearly 400 million users and launched a streaming data service, a video conferencing application, fiber optic broadband and digital payments.
The super cheap data allowed hundreds of millions of Indians to be brought online for the first time. When Ambani launched Jio, there were less than 350 million internet users in India. Now he has $750 million.
Gio has become the gateway to the Indian internet and Ambani has the keys.
Many of these changes, especially on the internet, are due to the positive disruption Gio has caused, Ajit Mohan, vice president and general manager of Facebook India, told CNN Business. Jio is the hero of this story in terms of providing that access, and I think that sets the context for our investment and for Jio and our partnership, because we saw the alignment of the vision.
Ambani’s vision continues to evolve.
After raising more than $20 billion for its Jio platforms, Reliance turned to investors to help with its retail business. Reliance Retail raised about $6.4 billion between late September and early November, most of which came from Jio investors such as Silver Lake, General Atlantic, TPG and the Saudi sovereign wealth fund.
The Ambani retail chain is the largest in India, with over 12,000 stores. And he made no secret of the fact that he wanted to combine his retail and his technology empire to take on two big American companies. Amazon (AMZN) and Walmart (WMT) Flipkart dominate online shopping in India and together hold over 60% of the market. Ambani makes an aggressive play for a character.
It is doing so with JioMart, an initiative announced for 2019 to bring thousands of Indian mother and father shops, known as kiranas, online. And Reliance Retail recently acquired one of its biggest Indian competitors, Future Retail, for $3.3 billion – a deal that sparked a long and complicated legal battle with Amazon.
Although he has processed all this, the richest man in India is already looking for the next big thing: Bringing 5G to India in the second half of 2021.
It will be powered by a locally developed network, devices and technological components, Ambani told a virtual audience at India’s Mobile Communications Congress in November, with a possible nod to Chinese company Huawei’s exclusion from building the country’s 5G network.
Each of these plans individually would be a tall order, and executing them all together is a difficult task, even for one of the world’s biggest billionaires. It aims to revolutionize the way more than a billion people communicate, do business and shop.
And the ultimate goal is to reach billions more.
We are creating attractive domestic solutions in education, health, agriculture, infrastructure, financial services and new trade, Ambani said in his speech. Each of these solutions, once tried and tested in India, will be presented to the rest of the world to solve global problems.
Geography vs. technology
But the billionaire, who would like to take Gio public in the United States, might face difficulties in taking the company on the global stage because of its rapid growth in India.
Reliance does not have one area of technological advantage and superiority like Google search, Facebook’s social media portfolio, Amazon’s e-commerce system, Alibaba’s combined e-commerce and payments strengths, or Tencent’s super app, said Ravi Shankar Chaturvedi, director of research at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Business in a global context institute.
On the contrary, Jio’s dominance was largely geographical, helped by a regulatory regime that supported local suppliers.
Mr. Chaturvedi added that it would be difficult to make a meaningful list of the technological innovations and IP created by Jio that could form the basis for its expansion abroad.
India, of course, is a huge prize in itself, which Jio has already largely conquered.
The country’s 750 million Internet users make it the world’s biggest technology magnet after China, which has kept American companies out for decades. Facebook, Google, Amazon, Netflix (NFLX) and Uber (UBER), to name a few, have already spent several years and billions of dollars hacking the market.
For Silicon Valley, the Indian market alone is larger than the next five largest consumer markets – in terms of population – in the world combined, Chaturvedi said.
While China has the great firewall of online censorship that massively hinders American technology companies, Ambani has managed to create the great Indian firewall through Jio, Chaturvedi says.
Global tech companies have had to overcome a number of regulatory hurdles from the Indian government, which has shown a greater willingness to crack down on foreign players – whether it’s blocking Facebook’s efforts to offer free internet, changing the way companies store and collect data, or, more recently, closing access for Chinese tech companies because of a border dispute.
Ambani was the biggest beneficiary of many of these rules, and the billionaire was a big supporter of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his campaign for a self-sufficient India.
There are some cracks – albeit small ones – in Ambani’s dominance. One day before 2021, the Securities and Exchange Board of India ordered Reliance Industries and Ambani to pay a $5.5 million fine for what the regulator called a fraudulent and manipulative trading scheme against a former subsidiary in 2007.
But this is unlikely to get in the way of his technical ambitions. Ambani, who has declined several requests for interviews for this article, has a habit of taking bold bets and making them pay off – usually with huge resources at his disposal and a decent political wind behind him.
After all, he is the richest man in India, so he has the deepest pockets in this country, said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, journalist and co-author of Gas Wars : Rogue Capitalism and Ambanis. Without risk of contradiction, I can say that this was supported by a favourable policy and regulatory environment, he added.
From oil to Gio
The business empire Ambani now runs is very different from the one he inherited.
His father, Dhirubhai, started a small yarn trading company in Mumbai in 1957, which later grew into a successful textile company. Over the decades, it has grown into a sprawling conglomerate, Reliance Industries, encompassing the power, petrochemical and telecommunications sectors. Dirubhai’s death in 2002 led to a bitter succession battle that split the company in two.
Mukesh Ambani eventually gained control of the company’s main oil and petrochemical assets, while his younger brother Anil gained control of new businesses, particularly in the telecommunications and digital sectors.
Then, in September 2016, Mukesh Ambani burst into his brother’s territory with a proposal that blew the roof off India’s telecommunications and internet industry. Jio offered every new customer six months free access to 4G, and Indians who signed up by the millions unleashed a brutal price war.
You entice your users by offering them something for free, and once they’re hooked, you start raising prices gradually, Takurta said. This is the classic way that all types of monopolies in the world function.
One of the main victims of the price war was Anil Ambani. His company Reliance Communications announced in late 2017 that it would sell most of its assets and retire from the mobile phone business. Two days later, Jio acquired Reliance Communications. And two years later, the elder Ambani highlighted the difference in fortune between the brothers by helping to settle an $80 million debt with Ericsson (ERIC), thus preventing Anil from going to jail.
Jio’s meteoric rise has helped offset some of the oil volatility that cost Ambani billions of dollars last year and created Reliance for the Future, which has moved away from its core business. A spokesperson for the company told CNN Business that the name Jio – which means life in Hindi – was chosen in part because it reflects the world of oiL.
A bold attempt to transform its $170 billion conglomerate will be put to the test in 2021 as India’s economy recovers from its first recession in nearly a quarter century. Like other tech companies around the world, Jio took action during the pandemic, but the question is whether it can continue to grow fast enough to really get the company out of oil.
Ambani set his course years ago.
Data is the new oil, he said in 2017, just six months before he launched his campaign to disrupt India’s tech landscape.
First India, then the world
It’s often easier for US technology giants to have a big national player in your corner, and Gio is by far the biggest in India.
Why Facebook, why Google…. put their money into Jio at a time when the world economy is in turmoil, when the Indian economy is in recession, why would they do that? Of course, because it’s not just about the economic aspect, Takurta said. I also believe, indirectly… political insurance.
Mohan, India’s Facebook chief, denied that government regulation was part of the conversation.
He said it had nothing to do with our investment in Jio or the partnership. It really came out of the realization that this was an extraordinary company that has impressively transformed India’s digital infrastructure in a short period of time.
From Ambani’s point of view, a large-scale coalition of some of the biggest names in the technology industry is just one way to increase Jio’s control over all aspects of the Indian Internet.
The company already controls the majority of lines through its extensive mobile phone network. Through Facebook, she is working on integrating JioMart with WhatsApp, the only platform in India with a user base similar to that of Jio. Together with Google, it wants to take control of mobile devices and jointly develop an affordable entry-level smartphone for India’s huge middle class. And thanks to partners like Qualcomm, even the chip technology behind these networks and devices is being researched.
With the increasing digitalization of the Indian economy and society, the demand for digital cameras will skyrocket. We cannot be massively dependent on imports, Ambani said last month. I clearly see India becoming a major centre for the modern semiconductor industry.
Qualcomm, a longtime partner of Jio, joined the investment movement, investing about $97 million in July for a 0.15 percent stake. Gio’s commitment to building out its own network and developing a smartphone gave the chipmaker a unique opportunity to participate in both parts of Ambani’s Internet access plan, said Quinn Li, senior vice president and chief investment officer at Qualcomm Ventures.
If you look at operators around the world, very few are as vertically integrated, he told CNN Business. As the technology provider to the industry, I believe we are best equipped to serve Jio, both in terms of equipment and infrastructure.
Ambani seems poised to capitalise on the global support of Jio and Reliance Retail for an IPO and stated in June that he wants to take both companies public within the next five years. An IPO of Jio Platforms on the Nasdaq could happen as early as 2021, according to several media outlets and industry analyst reports. Reliance did not respond to a request for comment on its proposed IPO.
That wouldn’t surprise me, Takurta said. Once you’re on the Nasdaq, you’re going to make a good deal with all those investors.
Ambani seems convinced that he can get the whole world to buy a moment in India, anchored by his company. And given his track record so far, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be.
My friends, we are about to enter a glorious decade in Indian history, he said. Nothing can stop India’s growth, not even Covid-19. This is our chance to make history.