MO­BILE NET­WORK: In­dia’s Rich­est Man Of­fers Free 4G to 1 Bn Peo­ple P8

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In­dia’s rich­est man is rolling out a US$20 bil­lion (F$41.12bn) mo­bile net­work that could bring light­ning-fast In­ter­net to hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple. In­dian con­sumers are al­ready cel­e­brat­ing the ar­rival of Mukesh Am­bani’s new Reliance Jio ser­vice, seiz­ing on the bil­lion­aire’s prom­ise to de­liver rock bot­tom prices and down­load speeds that will en­able stream­ing video. The 4G net­work, which reaches more than 80 per cent of the coun­try, of­fi­cially went live Mon­day with a set of gen­er­ous in­tro­duc­tory of­fers.

In­di­ans will be able to use Jio for free un­til the end of 2016, and pay as lit­tle as 149 ru­pees ($2.25) a month for data after that. “Any­thing and ev­ery­thing that can go dig­i­tal is go­ing dig­i­tal -- at an ex­po­nen­tial rate,” Am­bani told in­vestors last week at his com­pany’s an­nual gen­eral meet­ing. “Life is go­ing dig­i­tal.”

Only one fifth of adults in In­dia have ac­cess to the In­ter­net. Few pub­lic Wi-Fi spots ex­ist, and fast broad­band con­nec­tions re­quire in­fra­struc­ture that is rarely found in poorer ur­ban ar­eas, much less ru­ral ones.

But that is chang­ing fast. If the Jio net­work suc­ceeds, Am­bani will be able to cap­i­tal­ize on a seis­mic shift that could see hun­dreds of mil­lions of In­di­ans come on­line in the com­ing years -- in most cases via a smart­phone.

It’s a mar­ket that tech in­dus­try gi­ants des­per­ately want to crack. Google (GOOG) has in­stalled free Wi-Fi at train sta­tions across In­dia, and Face­book (FB, Tech30) tried to of­fer a free ver­sion of its plat­form. Am­bani has in­vested bil­lions con­struct­ing nearly 100,000 tele­coms tow­ers across In­dia.

He es­ti­mates that Jio al­ready cov­ers some 18,000 cities and 200,000 vil­lages. By March 2017, his aim is to reach 90 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion. Build­ing a na­tional 4G net­work from scratch rep­re­sents a ma­jor risk for Am­bani, who got out of tele­coms about 15 years ago after a dis­pute with his brother, Anil Am­bani, who con­trols Reliance Com­mu­ni­ca­tions. The broth­ers, who to­gether are es­ti­mated to be worth $26 bil­lion, have patched things up in re­cent years.

Jio will be able to use ra­dio fre­quen­cies owned by Reliance Com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Re­lated: 900 mil­lion In­di­ans can’t get on­line. Here’s why.

Ri­val net­works have re­sponded to the launch of Reliance Jio with spe­cial of­fers of their own, mak­ing a price war a near cer­tainty.

Air­tel has slashed its prices for 3G and 4G ser­vice by 80 per cent, and Voda­fone (VOD) has boosted the amount of data in its plans by nearly 70 per cent.

If Jio, which means “live life” in Hindi, is to be­come an­other mega busi­ness in Reliance’s sta­ble of en­ergy, me­dia, chem­i­cals and re­tail op­er­a­tions, the net­work will have to be able to han­dle the load from mil­lions of new cus­tomers. On Tues­day in New Delhi, a de­vice on the Reliance net­work was show­ing im­pres­sive down­load speeds of 21 megabits per sec­ond.

With $20 bil­lion at stake, that kind of per­for­mance needs to be repli­cated across In­dia.

Photo: GOOGLE

In­dia’s rich­est man- the chair­man, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor and largest share­holder of Reliance In­dus­tries Lim­ited (RIL) Mukesh Am­bani.

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