Will Reliance’s 20 Year Big Tech Pivot Succeed?

Last fortnight, everything in business news was Reliance, Reliance and only Reliance.

Game of Telecoms

The mid 90s were go-go years for disruption in Indian businesses, led by the liberalization of 1991.

Mobile phones, then a novel concept for the few, were one of the few technologies to debut. The first allocation of radio frequency spectrum to private companies to provide mobile phone services was carried out in 1995. 

That laid the foundation for private companies to foray into telecommunications. 

Within a year, Airtel, Tata Indicom and Idea were born, all of whom dominated the market with the incumbent BSNL. The oligopoly in telecom would have continued, but for an erstwhile petrol pump assistant in Yemen.

Dhirubhai Ambani had grown to be both revered and feared for his business instincts.  

Dhirubhai Ambani was famous enough to have his own biopic

2002 was a turning point in the Ambani family and India’s telecom industry at large. Dhirubhai died from a stroke in July. Airtel’s Bharti Enterprises also went public in 2002, becoming the first Indian telco to be taken to the public bourses.

Coinciding with the late Dhirubhai’s 70th birthday, Reliance rolled out its inaugural telecom services on 28 Dec, 2002. Mukesh Ambani, chairman and managing director, Reliance Industries unveiled Reliance IndiaMobile, a nationwide limited mobility or Wireless in Local Loop network. 

True to Reliance’s massive marketing campaigns, the country wide launch came with free mobile handsets and a tariff that was the most ambitious ever listed by a telecom company in India.

The dice, beginning a 20 year game to pivot, had been rolled.

The Reliance IndiaMobile service would be available only on CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) handsets. Reliance tied up with handset manufacturers like LG and Daewoo to ensure supply of a million handsets to the consumers.

Reliance thought scale, for the masses, long term, right from day 1. 

To acquire customers and build up a customer base, Reliance Infocomm launched Dhirubhai Ambani Entrepreneur Programme. Apart from the plain vanilla telephone services, it bet big on services like Internet browsing to hook consumers onto the network.

This foresight was in 2002, and would be a hallmark of Reliance’s strategic planning.

Known majorly for petrochemicals, this would reflect in the company’s future moves. But before the extensive groundwork laid down could start reaping benefits, something else was ripping at the seams.

The family of the business was falling apart. 

Not The Last Dance

Ambani Sr’s passing brought to public the feud between the two brothers, Anil and Mukesh. 

The spat between the brothers continued until their mother Kokilaben brokered a peace pact in April 2005. As per the agreement, the petrochemicals business under Reliance Industries (RIL) went to Mukesh, the older one. Anil took over the telecom business, which Mukesh had steered so far.

Mukesh believed in the importance of connecting an under-connected populace, and was long on telecom.The pact also involved a non-compete agreement, which prevented RIL from entering the telecom business.

Having to let go of the telecom business would have been a challenge, but RIL waited patiently. It started Reliance Digital, and a host of tech first businesses. After 5 years, the non-compete clause was scrapped in May 2010.

The older brother was now going to play the long game he had helped start in 2002. 

In June 2010, the government conducted an auction of the 4G spectrum. The bandwidth being sold was not particularly attractive to most of the incumbent companies, partly because the existing players had been entwined with legacy 3G and 2G spectrums. 

The previous 3G spectrum auction was a failure for many of them, because the investment by telcos to upgrade the existing towers did not generate the returns the companies had hoped for. 

Many were surprised when an obscure company Infotel Broadband Services Private Limited (IBSPL), promoted by Anant Nahata, son of Mahendra Nahata emerged victorious, having bid ₹128bn (then $2.7bn).

This was amplified by the fact that the bid was almost 5,000 times the company’s own net worth. 

Just hours after the auction closed, Reliance Industries, controlled by Mukesh Ambani, agreed to invest ₹48Bn for a 95% stake. That was when executives at RIL’s rivals realised they were outsmarted. 

Exploiting regulatory arbitrage would start becoming a pattern for Reliance. But a lesser-known fact was the long term planning and top-notch hiring it would do.

Telecom stalwarts like Rainer Deustchmann, from Deustche Telekom, and Tareq Amin, from Huawei were already being courted. For a company infamous for being “family-run”, high quality, global leaders were hired to build professionally.

The Mukesh Ambani-led company would eventually get to use the 2.3 GHz spectrum for mobile telecom services, instead of the obscure Nahata-owned operation which was alleged to be acting merely as a “front”. 

Infotel Broadband Services continued to act as RIL’s telecom subsidiary. Then it was renamed in January 2013.

It was called, as you would guess, Reliance Jio.

Dreams of Jio

Mukesh Ambani attributed his inspiration for Reliance Jio to his daughter. 

The idea to transform the internet and data consumption pattern in India happened when his daughter Isha said “Dad, the internet in our house sucks”, during a summer when she was home for the holidays from a US undergrad. The sentiments of her twin brother, Akash, were not very different.

The bigger subtext here, in 2014, was that the older Ambani was already planning family succession. For Mukesh, his foray into the telecom industry was also an act to fulfil an unfinished dream. 

“Woh toh ho nahi paya na purane wale Reliance mein.Woh infrastructure develop hone se pehle toh company divide ho gaya.” he would say (“That couldn’t happen in the old Reliance. The company got divided before the infrastructure was developed.”)

Telecom would be that enabler which Reliance uniquely imagined as powering India’s future.

After acquiring the 4G rights, Mukesh set out to build an infrastructure that would support the new spectrum. Reliance began to invest $35Bn in erecting 200,000 greenfield cell-phone towers across all 22 circles in India. It laid out 150,000 miles of terabit capacity fibre-optic network that covered 673 cities. 

This was the largest infrastructure and services rolled out by any new entrant anywhere in the world. In 2014, it would seem almost mad to take a bet like this on a market that has not been known for building such large digital businesses. 

But for RIL, it was building on what it had laid brick by brick since 2002.

While all the existing network providers are using a modified 2G/3G infrastructure to provide 4G in India, Jio’s greenfield network offered higher bandwidth and faster speeds. 

The Jio network, designed to be future-proof, is capable of offering 5G and 6G connectivity as and when the technology materialises.

In the run up to its launch, RIL budgeted INR 100K cr ($13B) to build its 4G network, spectrum sharing and acquisitions. It also tied up with OEMs, chipset vendors, ODMs for end-to-end service design and engineering from 2014 onwards. 

When Jio launched in 2016, not even its most ardent supporters would have imagined how it would explode on the scene, unlocking billions of value for technology and digital businesses. 

Breaking Mad

Many commentators would point to Jio’s proximity to the mandarins in Delhi for its success. 

It would be missing the frugal innovation and long game the company was playing. Its rise to dominance backed with strong products has been powerful, controversial, and reshaped the fundamental dynamics of not just the telecom industry but the broader Indian economy. 

The idea of providing a powerful network with quality data and voice calling in a cost-effective manner was created by Jio. 

Underscoring the risky gamble as Reliance’s debt surged to INR 49K cr ($6.5B) due to the heavy investment in Jio. What it had definitely done, though, was it created the largest 4G LTE-only data network in the world.

Jio made voice calling free for life with zero roaming charges and high quality data at 1/10th the prices in the US for the initial four months (Sep-Dec 2016). 

Voice would remain free for its users even after the introductory offer. On the partnerships side it tied up with 20 smartphone brands (Samsung, Micromax, LG) to bundle Jio SIM Cards. The aggressive push worked and in just 170 days it acquired 100M+ users

It also went into a marketing frenzy as it hired one of the top Bollywood actors to promote Jio SIM and the idea of ‘Digital India’

Jio has cornered incredible market share very quickly

While it was rapidly scaling up, Jio knew that it wanted to expand its TAM further. It launched the ‘world’s most affordable 4G LTE smartphone’ available free for use with a deposit of INR 1,500 ($20)

In its quest to disrupt and conquer, Jio spent more than $31B in just two years.

In the same period India jumped from #155 to #1 in the world in mobile data consumption. Built for Bharat, building Bharat, at scale.

All this was driven by just one, massive, player pushing the market to its limits. 

Jaunty Juggernaut’s Flying Circus

The competitors could do nothing but to reduce their prices. 

It soon turned to an intensely fought price war where Jio bled out the other players to conquer the market, a brutal but remarkably effective strategy for them. In moves reminiscent of Amazon, industry consolidation took place with Jio acquiring Rcom (his younger brother’s) assets and life turned a full circle.  

As the juggernaut Jio was scaling terms of user growth Mukesh Ambani dubbed it the world’s largest startup with an investment of INR 150K cr (~$20Bn). Startup would be maybe, but it had RIL’s ambition written all over it.

While RIL still seemed to be the classic petro-chemical giant, Jio was the big pillar in the long tech game that it had been playing. At around the same time, a tech titan from the other side of the ocean was trying to launch Free Basics

In tandem with Jio, RIL started a concerted focus to acquire startups in its areas of interest to strengthen its capabilities and realize its vision of ‘Digital India’ and democratize data access for all 1.3B+ Indians.

In Sep 2016, it set up an INR 5K cr ($750M) called the Jio Digital India Startup Fund. RIL mentioned that Jio’s aim was to build a platform for young Indians to create ‘businesses of the future’

When Ambani said that “Data is the New Oil”, the man of subtexts would be talking about his company’s pivot from oil to tech way back in 2016.

Jio encouraged the young cohort to create applications compatible with the Jio app, a strategy inspired from Google when it opened up its Android OS to allow developers to innovate on top of that.

Jio’s app suite is built for enabling a platform

By offering a bundled offering Reliance has aimed to be the only destination for its users to do everything. 

Rather than different service providers being used for each of these services, Jio Platforms seemed to provide an all in one bundled offering. 

Digging deeper, Jio Platforms would be part of a bigger overarching strategy. 

Hungry for Game

In this, RIL seemed to be doing nothing different from adopting the playbook of tech behemoths. 

Closed loop ecosystems for users are lucrative as it creates strong lock-in while minimizing churn. Google did it through software by offering search, email, calls, news, videos etc. while Apple has done it via a hardware route through iPod, iPhone, MacBook, AirDrop, AirPods.

RIL though, decided to go entirely inorganic. Like it had done before, it would do this at blitz speed, almost breathlessly. 

Within 2 years, it acquired or invested in Balaji Telefilms (TV content), EdCast (learning enabler), Embibe (edtech content), Saavn (music content), Radsys (5G architecture), Eros (TV content), Hathway (broadband), DEN (cable), Haaptik (customer engagement),  Reverie (language processing), Fynd (online shopping), Tesseract (AR/VR) and Grab (logistics).

All these acquisitions totalled upwards of $3Bn.

Jio’s acquisition universe

If you reread their acquisitions, it may seem to make absolutely no sense.

But digging deeper, you realize that Reliance was building a closed ecosystem in an even deeper way than the global tech giants. If Facebook, Google, Netlfix and Amazon were built on content and commerce, Reliance took it one step further.

It would own carriage, content and commerce. 

Looking through this lens, the acquisitions would suddenly start to make more sense. They are actually enablers for the 3Cs. Carriage (Radsys, Hathway, Den), Content (Balaji, EdCast, Embibe, Eros, Saavn), Commerce (Haaptik, Reverie, Fynd, Tesseract, Grab). 

If it seemed Reliance was building highways, it actually was building a gigantic Jio themed park.

You paid an entry fee (mobile subscription), remained engaged (content) and paid for different rides if you wanted to (commerce). Funnily, Reliance was more similar to Disney in this respect than to the FAANGs.      

But before you begin to think this seems like a wonderful joyride, great companies don’t die of starvation, they die of indigestion. 

Unarrested Developments

Throwing capital to advance your interests is the oldest playbook in capitalism, but it isn’t guaranteed to work.

The string of acquisitions made by Reliance brought out a common theme, part of the overarching 3C strategy. Other acquisitions did not show the immediate promise of synergies.  

Ironically, even with a long list of acquisitions, Reliance was unable to substantially monetize any of these platforms. Few of the acquisitions were upscaled to satisfactorily justify the investments. Its big hits like Saavn and Embibe remained where they were after acquisitions.

Reliance seemed to have oversubscribed to the diversification game.

Its inhouse brands were facing a similar fate. While both Reliance Digital and Fresh were seeing an overall growth in revenue share, the upside in becoming a traditional market leader was limited. Touted as technology first offerings for Reliance, they were buggy and had poor customer experience.  

Simultaneously, both Reliance Retail and Jio were capital guzzling businesses. 

In order to dominate the marketplace Reliance Retail went on a shopping spree. It created presence in over 6600 cities and towns and was opening stores at a rate of 10 stores per day. Subsidiaries like Reliance Retail were offering huge discounts to compete with giants like Amazon and Flipkart. Jio, in its quest to be the major telecom player, pushed RIL down the debt hole.

Over the years, Reliance had managed to create two parallel streams, an offline muscle and an online presence. Reliance through its deep history had significant offline heft and online capabilities, but none of that would help becoming an online giant. 

The need of the hour was a non-traditional tech innovation which could integrate its catalogue of offline and online consumer products into one Reliance story. Its decade long effort to pivot into tech would come to nought if it didn’t build 

As you have started to realize, Ambani always seems to have an ace in the pack. 

Summoning the Dragonballs

Remember Mark Zuckerberg from 2016?

Not only did Facebook’s Free Basics project fail, its success in Whatsapp’s ubiquitous usage was not converting to revenue. Repeated attempts to get Whatsapp Pay off the ground to monetize this layer failed. 

You had an ambitious long term company, with significant technological capabilities struggling with Indian regulation. Who would be better than an ambitious long term company, struggling with technology having significant expertise in Indian regulatory arbitrage?

Reliance and Facebook would be the missing pieces in each other’s puzzle. One tech giant helping build another tech giant, one Indian regulatory wizard teaching an American regulatory wizard. 

Onboarding Facebook would give access to 400MM users on Whatsapp. Sellers and buyers would interact on Whatsapp. Participants get to order on a platform which they are already familiar with. 

Whatsapp would help infuse a big missing piece in Reliance’s tech pivot. 

Reliance had already launched JioMart, Reliance’s own e-commerce platform. Unlike its previous tech expeditions, this one could not simply fail. Within days of Facebook investing 10% of its cash pile for 10% of Jio, JioMart launched on Whatsapp

As a thought experiment, imagine if aliens landed on earth today and had to build an online business. Would they build a website, or rather just have a Whatsapp storefront?

You know the answer.

Facebook’s failure to build anything of significance in China stung even more as it saw Tencent’s superapp WeChat corner a large portion of commerce. Facebook’s dream of building Whatsapp into a superapp would need an able and willing partner. 

Jio was, as you would realize, more than able and willing. 

JioMart on Whatsapp will likely act as a bridge between kirana stores and consumers. In essence, this is a hybrid model where conventional brick and mortar stores like Reliance Fresh and Reliance Smart will act as fulfillment centres. 

Unlike other e-commerce giants, this new digital platform will not replace mortar and brick stores (Kirana stores). Instead, it will collaborate with them and amplify their reach as well as their profitability. 

If anyone would want popular regulatory favours, you know who the stores would favour between Jio and Amazon. 

From a macroeconomic perspective, the integration of the 30 million small and medium businesses (SMBs) would be a big positive. These SMBs are the heart of the Indian economy and provide employment to a large number of people. 

Jio, like its parent Reliance, would show that is the master of scale, India edition. 

Enabling the Mandalorians

Reliance has built thinking of the 80% of Indian consumers, or the Bharat buzzword.

Since 2002, when it launched Reliance Mobile, the target has been the average Indian consumer, not the top 10%. This has strategically been beneficial because RIL is one of the few companies that has the heft to execute the infrastructure buildout.

While it has shrewdly manoeuvred regulation, there is no taking away that it has been frugally innovative and taken massive bets on India. India’s data prices being 1/10th of the world’s are testaments. 

With a transition playing out in the background, Mukesh Ambani’s reference to his daughter’s Internet quip and data being the new oil were just massive hints of Reliance’s strategy. 

It has consciously been trying to reduce its reliance on its ‘cash cow’ vertical of oil & gas, petrochemicals and refining. In a shareholder meeting, RIL also prophesized that its new businesses (retail, telecom) would contribute over 50% of RIL’s topline over next few years vs. 32% at present. 

Jio is a bet on Reliance’s future, both the business and the family. 

RIL had been debt free in 2012, and the cheap capital raised in 2014 was to fund this future. Its great deleveraging is now being funded not only by Facebook, but by private equity players and rights issues.  

All this will also push governance in a more transparent way, as it looks to be treated as a global tech player.  

This was not an overnight decision. Over the years Reliance had been systematically writing its tech story, through failures and successes. 

Reliance looks, scarily, like Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google (FAANG) all rolled into one, but it may be stretching the monopoly story too far. 

The success of all of these tech giants has been because they have enabled entrepreneurial ambitions, and not because they are monopolies.

Facebook and Google enable businesses to market, Amazon enables them to sell, Apple enables them to build and Netflix enables them to entertain. The tolls that these platforms built have enabled them to become massive organizations. 

Reliance would be wise to learn, and probably already is. 

As it looks to become the defacto enabler in India, it is looking increasingly unique. Its 20 year pivot has culminated into it having strength in carriage, content and commerce, unmatched by any other technology player in the world. 

Its strategy of being the elephant in the swimming pool has enabled it to protect and create high defence on all fronts of its three layered stack.

The vertical integration may be necessary in an upcoming tech market like India to make sense. The entity could offer groceries, goods, services, payments, content, calling and data. What started in 2002, is nearing completion.

Reliance’s 20 year pivot into big tech could succeed, and unlock massive entrepreneurial value in India.

Written by Abhinav, Keshav, Mitali, Raj and Aviral

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments