Ambani's promise of a new Indian dawn in connectivity

Mukesh Ambani's Jio plans to revolutionize speeds at which we consume content through its pan-India 4G network, but seeing is believing.

Mukesh Ambani is known to most Indians for being many things. In the last few years, much of his fame has come from building a $1 billion house in Mumbai overlooking a sprawling slum. But if things go according to plan, the largest refiner of petroleum in India may become known as someone who has ushered in a major revolution in content consumption through blindingly fast connectivity speeds.

A few days ago, at Techfest, held at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) — Bombay, Reliance Jio, sponsored by Mukesh Ambani, gave a little taste of what it will offer Indian consumers very soon. If all of the company's offerings turn out to be what they say they are, and similar to what was unveiled yesterday, Jio may just usher in a major shift in content consumption in India.

Advertised broadband and 3G speeds in India today are largely exercises in fiction. For instance, I have a 3Mbps broadband connection from one of the country's largest telcos, but actual download speeds have never gone above 256Kbps. My 3G plan on my smartphone is abysmal — most pages take anywhere from around 15 seconds and upwards to load.

One possible reason for this is that debt-laden telcos are unable to expand their capex spends to cater to new subscriber growth. There's just more people piling onto the same network without any infrastructure ramp-up. However, despite this terrible connectivity, Indians have pulled off a Houdini-like act by somehow becoming the world's biggest sharers of mobile content, something that I wrote about in another recent post.

This, of course, could be taken to a whole new level if Jio delivers what it says it does — and right now, the offerings look pretty attractive: High-definition TV shows without glitches and breaks, along with a set-top box that runs on Android; catch-up TV, wherein one can watch TV shows which are seven days old; the Jio Drive service, where 100GB of storage on the cloud is offered free to subscribers; a fibre backbone with speeds as high as 51Mbps; tablets and other wireless devices connecting at real speeds of more than 2Mbps; and a whole suite of digital services in education, healthcare, entertainment, and cloud services.

But before you break out the bubbly, it's not quite clear how all of this is going to transpire. Jio is planning to make all of this happen through a deal with its long-time, arch nemesis and the largest telco in India, Bharti Airtel, which has left even analysts scratching their heads. This is because, in an effort to offer nationwide services, the telcos will share optic fibre, towers, submarine cable networks, and internet broadband services.

The crux of this deal is tower sharing — India has 400,000 of them, and Reliance needs 150,000 of them for a pan-India 4G launch. This is because, as this article points out, it has got services in the 2300MHz band, which is far less efficient than the 900MHz and 1800MHz bands, requiring from two to three times the number of towers. And debt-laden Airtel is probably delighted with the cash infusion. Hence the deal.

The big question is of course how all this sharing of infrastructure will affect real speeds. Plus, in a not so salubrious development, Reliance has also made a majority investment in Network18 (owner of CNN-IBN, Forbes India, and CNBC, amongst others) through a complex deal ensuring that one large entity owns not just the pipeline, but the content to go through it as well.

In other words, the promise of cheap prices, access to diverse content, and fast connectivity currently belong in the "seeing is believing" category until further notice.


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