Profile

India’s Digital Dreamer

Mukesh Ambani is betting on a smartphone revolution—and spending big money to make it happen.

Riccardo Vecchio Imprints illustration for Foreign Policy
Riccardo Vecchio Imprints illustration for Foreign Policy

Mukesh Ambani has poured $35 billion into what may come across as the world’s single greatest act of philanthropy. After spending years erecting more than 200,000 cell-phone towers across India, as well as laying 150,000 miles of fiber-optic cables, Ambani launched a new cellular service called Jio—a Hindi word that translates to “live life.” To boost users, Jio offered 4G data completely free of charge for an introductory three months.

Millions of people rushed to sign up. For many Indians, it was their first taste of high-speed internet. “Life is going digital,” Ambani told investors at the time. In other words, the internet revolution was for everyone—not just for the country’s urban, English-speaking elites. Ambani would later extend the free offer for three additional months. By the time Jio began charging small amounts for access, 100 million Indians had already subscribed. As of this writing, a quarter of a billion Indians have Jio connections. In many cases, they get basic Jio phones to access the internet and social media for as little as a $23 security deposit.

Despite the freebies, Jio is no philanthropic endeavor. Ambani has long been aware that to hold on to his position as Asia’s richest man, he would have to diversify his company’s interests beyond its traditional petrochemical, refinery, and retail businesses. He also seems intent on dragging India into the digital era and then being the first to control and monetize an entire ecosystem of internet products. Ambani seems intent on dragging India into the digital era and then being the first to control and monetize an entire ecosystem of internet products.

[Human beings are rarely rational—so it’s time we all stopped pretending they are, Fareed Zakaria writes.]

The first phase of his plan is working. Jio has already rocked the Indian cellular and smartphone market by aggressively cutting prices and expanding the pool of potential users. Two large wireless operators have either shut down or filed for bankruptcy, while other competitors have been forced into uneasy mergers. Rivals have accused Jio of predatory pricing, but they have failed to convince India’s regulators. Given Jio’s immense investment in cellular infrastructure—and Ambani’s ability to stomach short-term losses—its market share is expected to keep growing.

The second stage of Ambani’s plan is more ambitious. Jio’s real competitors aren’t local cellular providers, such as Airtel or Vodafone India; instead, insiders say Ambani has long had his eyes set on competing with Google, Netflix, Spotify, and Facebook. Jio services now include attractive lifestyle products: a streaming TV service with hundreds of channels, a digital payments system, a music library, a health care app, a connected home system, a messaging platform. Each of these could reach Jio’s growing customer base in a multitude of Indian languages.

Ambani’s big bet is not about life going digital. That’s inevitable. His real bet is that average income in India—currently less than $2,000 a year—will rise enough for large numbers of Indians to start paying for the content they consume online. When that happens, Jio will be ready to cash in. If Ambani succeeds, he may become the richest man in the world—and he will have accelerated a smartphone internet revolution in the world’s largest democracy.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

Ravi Agrawal is the managing editor of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports Instagram: @ravireports

See the full list