Between March and November last year, even as the coronavirus upended lives and devastated economies around the world, India’s richest man was handed more than $27 billion to make a bet on the future of the internet.
The recipient of all those billions is Jio Platforms, part of Ambani’s sprawling conglomerate Reliance Industries. Jio started as a mobile network in 2016. Since then it has amassed around 400 million users and launched a streaming service, a video conferencing app, a fiber broadband network and digital payments.
Jio has become the gateway to India’s internet, and Ambani holds the keys.
“A lot of this change, especially in terms of bringing people online, has happened on the back of the positive disruption that Jio triggered,” Ajit Mohan, Facebook’s vice president and managing director in India, told CNN Business. “Jio has been the hero in that story in terms of providing that access, and I think that sets the context for our investment and Jio and our partnership, because… we saw alignment of the vision.”
Ambani’s vision keeps getting bigger.
Even as he digests all of that, India’s richest man is already looking to the next big thing — bringing 5G to India in the second half of 2021.
Any one of those plans on its own would be a big undertaking and executing them all together is a huge ask even for one of the world’s top billionaires. His ambition is to fundamentally transform the way more than a billion people communicate, do business and make purchases.
And the ultimate goal is to reach billions more.
“We are creating compelling homegrown solutions in education, health care, agriculture, infrastructure, financial services and new commerce,” Ambani said in his speech. “Each of these solutions, once proven in India, will be offered to the rest of the world to address global challenges.”
Geography vs Technology
“Reliance does not have any one area where it has a technological edge and superiority like say Google’s search, Facebook’s portfolio of social networks, Amazon’s e-commerce engine, Alibaba’s combination of strengths in e-commerce and payments or Tencent’s super app,” said Ravi Shankar Chaturvedi, research director at the Institute for Business in the Global Context at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
Rather, Jio’s dominance has been largely geographical, helped by a regulatory regime that supports homegrown players.
“One would be hard pressed to come up with a meaningful list of technological innovations and IP that Jio created that could be the basis for its expansion abroad,” Chaturvedi added.
India is, of course, a massive prize in itself that Jio has largely already captured.
“For Silicon Valley, the Indian market alone is bigger than the five next biggest consumer markets — by population — in the world combined,” said Chaturvedi.
Where China has its “Great Firewall” of online censorship that keeps out US tech companies en masse, Ambani has succeeded in creating a “Great Indian Paywall” that runs through Jio, Chaturvedi argues.
But that’s unlikely to dent his tech ambitions. Ambani, who declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this article, is used to making audacious bets and having them pay off — usually with enormous resources at his disposal and a fair political wind at his back.
“After all he’s India’s richest man, he has therefore the deepest pockets in this country,” said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, journalist and co-author of Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis. “I can say without any risk of contradiction that he has been supported by a favorable political dispensation and a regulatory regime,” he added.
From Oil to Jio
The corporate empire that Ambani presides over today looks rather different to the one he inherited.
Mukesh Ambani ultimately took over the company’s main oil and petrochemicals assets, while his younger brother Anil assumed control of the newer ventures, including telecom and digital businesses.
“You lure your users by giving something free, and once they’ve got hooked onto it, you gradually start increasing the prices,” Thakurta said. “It’s the classic way all kinds of monopolies work across the globe.”
Ambani charted his course years ago.
“Data is the new oil,” he said in 2017, just six months into his campaign to disrupt India’s tech landscape.
India first, then the world
For American tech giants, having a big homegrown player in your corner often makes life easier in a foreign country, and Jio is by far the biggest in India.
“Why did Facebook, why did Google…put in their money in Jio at a time when the world economy is in a mess, the Indian economy is in recession, why would they do it? Obviously because there is more than an economic angle,” said Thakurta. “It’s also I believe, indirectly… a political insurance of sorts.”
Mohan, Facebook’s India head, denied that government regulation was part of the conversation.
“That didn’t have anything to do with our investment in Jio or the partnership,” he said. “It really did come from recognizing that this was a special company that had done pretty amazing work in transforming the digital infrastructure of India in a short period of time.”
From Ambani’s perspective, a wide-ranging coalition of some of the biggest names in tech is just a way to further Jio’s command over all aspects of India’s internet.
The company already controls a lion’s share of the pipes through its vast mobile network. Through Facebook, it is working to integrate JioMart with WhatsApp, the only platform in India with a user base comparable to Jio’s. With Google, it’s gunning for control of mobile devices by jointly developing an “entry level, affordable smartphone” for India’s huge middle class. And it’s even got an eye on the chip technology that underpins those networks and devices through partners such as Qualcomm.
“As digitization of the Indian economy and Indian society picks up speed, the demand for digital hardware will grow enormously. We cannot rely on large-scale imports,” Ambani said last month. “I clearly foresee India becoming a major hub for a state-of-the-art semiconductor industry.”
“If you look at operators across the world, not many are that vertically integrated,” he told CNN Business. “Given we’re the technology supplier to the industry, we’re I think best equipped to work with Jio both on the device front as well as infrastructure.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised in the least,” said Thakurta. “Once you’re on Nasdaq, you give all these investors a good exit route.”
Ambani seems confident he can get the world to buy into India’s moment, anchored in his company. And given his track record so far, he has no reason not to be.
“Friends, we are about to step into a glorious decade of the India story,” he declared. “Nothing can stop India’s rise, not even Covid-19. This is our chance to create history.”