The Jio-fication of India

“In the year since it launched, Jio has acquired over 100 million users — many connecting to the mobile internet for the first time in their lives. To give some context, this effectively makes Jio that fastest adopted technology in human history.”

Just over a year ago, one of the biggest companies in India — Reliance Industries — did something incredibly brash and bold: It launched its own mobile network called Jio, despite having no previous experience in the telecoms sector. (At the time, its strengths were in textiles, energy, and retail).

Since then, it has led to what can only be described as a mobile revolution in India, one that will only accelerate in 2018. What did it do that was so dramatic? It effectively offered unlimited mobile data to all its users for a nine-month trial period — absolutely free. Since that trial period ended, it has continued to offer unlimited data packages for about $6 a month.

I wrote a Nieman Lab prediction a couple of years ago looking at how I thought India’s digital media sector would grow. The thing I did not anticipate was the massive impact that a mobile operator like Jio would have just a short time later and how disruptive that would be in terms of digital media consumption on mobile.

In the year since it launched, Jio has acquired over 100 million users — many connecting to the mobile internet for the first time in their lives. To give some context, this effectively makes Jio the fastest adopted technology in human history — acquiring its first 100 million users at a faster rate than Facebook, WhatsApp, or Snapchat.

There have been stories of young Indians using 20 GB of data a day (yes, a day) as they gorged on the ability to watch, download, and share movies, music, and TV on their phones at no cost.

In March, I visited a number of colleges across India and I asked journalism classes — often with students from poor backgrounds — how many had a mobile phone. Nearly all put their hands up. I then asked them which mobile operator they were using. They all said Jio. If I had visited them just a year previously, I would have been surprised if as many as half put up their hands for having a mobile phone with internet connection.

That is the impact that Jio is making across India — not just with young people, but also the first wave of the “next billion” users who are coming online for the first time through a cheap smartphone purchase, often in the more rural parts of the country. Once Jio has them, it is unlikely to lose many of them.

Jio has taken the Facebook playbook and given it rocket boosters. It’s strategy is to aggressively grow its user base by massively subsidising them through income from the other profitable parts of the Reliance group, forcing other mobile operators to drop their prices in a bid to try and hold on to their customers.

Unlike many mobile operators in the West — which have sometimes been criticised for lacking strategic vision and have become “dumb pipes” for data distribution, Jio has moved quickly into media distribution and creating its own ecosystem for content discovery.

It’s Jio Express chat app already allows its users to get a feed of content, including news (disclosure: the BBC in India, where I work, has a content distribution partnership with Jio). It also has its own TV service, where users can stream a number of satellite channels straight onto their phones for minimal cost. It will also soon be launching a home broadband service that is likely to quickly eat into that market too.

At the start of 2018, the next phase of the Jio story begins: the JioPhone, which was announced earlier in the summer, will go on sale. It will become the cheapest smartphone in India at 1500 rupees (approximately $20). But that isn’t all — anyone who buys it will be able to return it after three years and get their money back in full, effectively making it free. This is likely to lead to a huge increase in the smartphone userbase in India, pushing it past 500 million. For good or bad, Jio is going to have a big market share among these users — and the inevitable benefits of that scale that it will then be able to take advantage of.

So while you may have heard of the impact the likes of Facebook and WhatsApp have made in India, it’s entirely possible that by the end of 2018, there will be more users of Jio in India than there will users of both those platforms combined. Mobile internet in India will become a giant battleground, the likes of which we will not have seen anywhere in the world before.

Trushar Barot is the digital launch editor of Indian-language news services for the BBC in India.

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