Free to profits: How Jio, Mukesh Ambani’s $30bn startup, will make returns

Sunny Sen September 4, 2017 18 min

Almost a year before he unveiled the Jio Phone this July, Mukesh Ambani had decided that the way to the wallet of 500 million Indians yet untouched by data was through free 4G phones.

As he told this to a stunned room of top executives, the questions that came up centred around profitability of a project that had already soaked up about Rs 150,000 crore in capital.

Ambani was firm. “It’s not about subscribers nor is it about profitability. All that is a by-product (of what we will do). First, we need to connect the country’s length and breadth,” he told his confidants, recalls a company insider who was in the room.

For the executive, it was like deja vu. Ambani, chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries, which owns Reliance Jio, had done this before — not once, but twice.

The first time was 14 years ago when Reliance Infocomm, Ambani’s first shot at telecom services, launched Monsoon Hungama. The phenomenon shook the telecom industry and brought mobile call rates down to 40 paise a minute.

“What is the cheapest cost of communication,” Ambani had asked a group of company people some months before the July 1, 2003, announcement of Monsoon Hungama, this insider told FactorDaily.

“A postcard!” he answered his own question.

“That costs 40 paise… Why should someone pay more than that for calling? There is no charge for receiving a postcard, so incoming calls are free.”

In May 2003, India’s telecom regulator announced a shift to what it called a ‘calling party pays’ regime making incoming calls free. The previous December, under a scheme called Dhirubhai Ambani Pioneer, Reliance Infocomm had already introduced free incoming calls. In those days, incoming calls cost an average of Rs 6 a minute.

The Monsoon Hungama connection had two things – a phone, Rs 100 of free talk time – for Rs 501 and a monthly subscription of Rs 200 for the next two years.

Almost overnight, mobile phones changed from a luxury to flaunt to a commodity service that became common. “Even in 2003, MDA had plans to connect farmers, hospitals, schools, colleges and government and civic bodies on a mobile platform,” the insider says. People inside Reliance refer to Ambani as MDA, short for Mukesh Dhirubhai Ambani.

The second time was when in late 2015 when Ambani had started discussing the price at which he would launch Reliance Jio. “Free,” was the answer until Jio got a critical mass of subscribers.

When Reliance Jio launched its fourth generation or 4G, high-speed broadband service last year in September it gave it for free to millions of Indians — free calls, free data and free content.

Fourteen years have gone by but Ambani’s telecom playbook hasn’t changed.

“For him, it is like an unfinished dream… Woh toh ho nahi paya na purane wale Reliance mein. Woh infrastructure develop hone se pehle toh company divide ho gaya. (That couldn’t happen in the old Reliance. The company got divided before the infrastructure was developed.),” says another insider. He is referring to a split of the Reliance empire in 2005 between Ambani and younger brother Anil.

Still, where’s Ambani going to recover Rs 200,000 crore or over $30 billion (that’s the latest investment figure for the Jio project) from? “They are losing money and they will continue to lose money,” says a senior executive with an incumbent telecom operator. “Reliance Industries shows Rs 200,000 crore as additional expenditure… Till the time the management is not satisfied with the service (and that) Reliance can capitalise on the service, the number on the balance sheet will not show the true picture of Jio.”

Sure, 500 million smart feature JioPhones at a security deposit of Rs 1,500 each will yield about Rs 75,000 crore (no one expects a sizeable number of people asking for a refund after three years of using the phone). But, the till will ring only when customers use Jio to access data services, apps and content like never before in India. That will decide how the fortunes of Reliance Industries, valued at over $83 billion, fare in the years to come.

Jio did not reply to a request for interviews or respond to questions sent. This story has been pieced together with multiple interviews of company insiders, executives working for Jio’s rivals, its vendors and elsewhere in the ecosystem, analysts, lobbyists, and government officials. A substantial number of them wanted to stay anonymous.

Free Voice: Kill the Call

The answer to the almost existential “where’s the money” question lies in the scale Ambani wants to create in telecom, like his father and he did in petrochemicals to refining. So, he had made the largest mobile service – voice – free. “On all of Jio’s tariff plans, all domestic voice calls to any network will always remain free,” Ambani said on February 21.

Other telecom operators make most of their money from voice calls. In the June-ending quarter Airtel made almost 72% of its revenue from voice; for Idea Cellular, it was 76.5%.

Ambani’s thesis of free voice calls is an extension of the “postcard” phenomenon. When speech is free on the internet, why should a telecom operator charge money?

Ambani’s pricing is not based on Jio’s number of subscribers it has today (125 million by total SIMs sold and about 90 million by active users), explains an industry expert who has closely watched Ambani for many years. “Most companies do pricing based on the current scale of operations… Ambani’s pricing is based on what scale will Jio achieve five years down the line,” he says.

What does that mean?

Ambani is betting on a large number of data users. Costs will be driven down with economies of scale. “Based on the assumption that he will have an unprecedented scale, he has already lowered his price… He is asking users to pay the amount he would charge with two to three times of Reliance Jio’s current scale,” the expert says.

Jio’s growth is funded by the money Reliance Industries makes from other businesses, especially its cash cow energy business. Downstream chemical margins and oil prices, which have outperformed Asian gas prices, have made it comfortable for Reliance to pump in money into Jio.

The executive with the incumbent telecom operator says, “Eventually the oil business will go down. Look at the signs – automobiles is moving towards electric vehicles… What will Reliance’s new business be? That is why Mukesh Ambani is creating an alternate business in telecom.”

Globally, experts believe “data is the new oil”. Ambani’s presence in oil is bankrolling his data play. “We see the potential for 2017-18 earnings to rise by 3% more than offsetting the impact from the free telecom offer,” writes Parag Gupta of Morgan Stanley in his research report on the company ‘Monetization – Steady but Slow’.

Jio World: The Walled Garden

Where will Jio’s data users come from India, already the world’s second largest internet market by users? Between 80% and 90% of the country’s estimated 400 million internet users get their data via their mobile phones. Extrapolate this to another 400 to 500 million Indians expected to onboard the internet for the first time in the coming years. It is a reasonable guess that they will do so on the mobile phones — which is what Ambani is targeting?

“These users have never used Google, YouTube, Netflix or even Whatsapp,” says Kunal Bajaj, angel investor and independent telecom consultant. For everything Jio has an app, be it health, news, magazines, television, movies, music, connected car, chat, ecommerce or mobile payments.

“It’s like China, where there is a huge dominance of local brands in the internet business. Once these first-time users take the Reliance Jio connection of the bundled phone, they might end up consuming services on Jio’s apps,” Bajaj added. Rather than heading out to others.

With its free offering, Jio managed to gather a pool of customers from both the small and incumbent players, which is now a critical user base. “It is like a walled garden,” says the executive with the competing telecom operator. “They are hoping that all the users will stay inside the Reliance ecosystem.”

If Ambani pulls this off, Reliance Jio will be the first telecom operator to be a successful content company. It won’t have any local or international equivalent. The content business is ruled by companies such Google, Facebook, Netflix, Hostar, among others, which Reliance Jio will have to compete with.

Jyotindra Thacker heads the app business unit at Jio. His brief from Ambani was simple: “Think about the last man standing. Think about the community. Think what the villager needs to consume.”
Entertainment was the obvious choice. India thrives on Bollywood. Then came news, followed by chat.

Jio TV and Jio Cinema are already India’s #2 and #3 video streaming apps. Internal numbers show JioTV has crossed 50 million downloads, and JioCinema, JioMusic and JioMags 10 million each. JioXpressNews offers ad-free reading in 10 Indic languages across 500 publications.

About 85% to 90% of traffic on Jio is for entertainment. “Jio TV is a replica of Tata Sky and more. There are 400 channels on its platform… all real time, and on mobile,” says a third Jio insider. Serials and news on channels such Zee and Sab TV are most watched.

Back in 2014, Ambani realised that the apps Indians would consumer would not all be international apps. Internally, he emphasised on building apps that were important for Indians. “In 2013, he started giving directions of where it was heading,” says the third insider.

The apps were the fourth pillar of the Jio strategy, the other three being: a rich data ready network; an ecosystem of devices; and cheap and fewer data plans aimed at video consumption. The bet on videos is deliberate: about 75% of data on the Jio network is consumed watching videos.

In January, Jio started its health app that will compete with companies like Practo and Lybrate. It is also in discussions with NCERT, the government body that publishes school textbooks, and a couple of education startups like ExtraMarks to offer online courses to kids from Class 1 to Class 12.

The gameplan is to eventually to charge for content, no matter how difficult that may be. “All this is for free now… Once people are used to consuming the content, in the months to come there will be some kind of subscription money,” says the third insider.

Rivals insist Jio’s content bet will come to naught. “Content is not a big advantage… It doesn’t mean that you own the ecosystem. There will always be others with better content out there,” says another executive of an incumbent telecom operator.

Says an analyst who doesn’t want to be named: “About 20% of data consumption happens on apps that are Jio’s. Rest of the data is being used on third-party applications like YouTube and Hotstar.” This could not be independently confirmed with Jio executives or others around the company.

Data consumption of 20% on in-house apps is considered a very good number. It is 2-3% for other telecom operators. Once other applications gain traction, data on Jio’s own apps will rise, expect insiders.

Disruption: A long winter

As late as 2015, incumbent telcos were nonchalant about the 4G bet that Jio was making. Much of their network investments were going into building 2G and 3G networks. Sunil Mittal, chairman of Bharti Airtel, in a March 2015 interview, said that though funds are not a constraint, 2G and 3G roll-outs take away most of the expenses.

Seventeen months after Mittal’s statement Reliance Jio launched an all-4G network. On December 1, 2017, Ambani said: “On an average, a Jio customer is using 25 times more data than the average Indian broadband user.” By February, it was obvious that Reliance had a gusher on its hands — this time, one of data. “Today, India is the number one country in the world for mobile data usage. Jio users consume nearly as much mobile data as the entire United States of America… And nearly 50% more mobile data than all of China,” Ambani said at an event.

Soon enough Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular made voice calls free and came out with bundled data packs. “Incumbents already had that reach. They have matched the price,” said the first incumbent executive quoted earlier. “But they (Jio) destroyed the smaller players.”

Between August 2016, the month before Jio stepped into the market, and June 2017, Aircel, Tata Teleservices, Reliance Communication, and Telenor lost nearly six percentage points in market share — about three-fifths of 10.39% share that Jio had, per data from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

The bloody price war showed on Airtel’s books, too. Its net profits dropped from Rs 1,460.7 crore in the quarter to September 2016 to Rs 367.3 crore in June 2017 ending quarter.

The pain may continue. “(The) telecom sector revenues could be impacted by positive 5% to negative 8% with a downward bias across various scenarios of conversions to the plans introduced by Jio as well as incumbents,” writes Saurabh Handa, analyst with Citi Research in a report titled Jio: Proving the Naysayers Wrong.

Ambani couldn’t have disrupted the industry without two things — a network that would be ultra-low cost to operate and affordable mobile phones.

The Plot and the Execution

Ambani knew that if he wanted high-speed internet on phones in India, he could not rely on the anaemic backhaul network in the country. The only way forward was to lay optic fibre network in cities. But that had its own challenges. For example, in Mumbai, the municipal corporation wouldn’t give permission to dig more than a 1 km every day, and for every km Reliance had to take a separate permission and payments. “Our executives were filling 100 to 200 drafts every day… The corporation did not accept online payments,” says a fourth company executive.

Kiran Thomas was the first employee of Reliance Jio. He had worked with Ambani in Reliance Communication and had later joined Reliance Retail on Mukesh’s split with brother Anil.

Ambani gave Thomas the job of setting up the IT systems and the network infrastructure with a four-point brief:

  1. The public shouldn’t suffer. So, every tower was pre-fab.
  2. The towers shouldn’t look ugly and go with the city’s landscape. So, in XLRI the towers looked like palm trees, in Chandigarh they were made like tulip structures, and in other places like water tanks.
  3. It should be multi-utility. So, some of them have street lamps and surveillance cameras mounted.
  4. Try and create process that would reduce time and wastage.

Already more than 100,000 towers have been set up. “In the next phase there will be a total of 1.5 lakh towers, which will cover 90% of the population,” said the third insider. At present Jio covers 80% of India’s population.
The radio towers were low cost, too. The energy consumption is less than a kilowatt, comparable to three kilowatt on legacy towers. Executives FactorDaily spoke with said that the electronics are designed in such a manner that the towers can take extreme temperatures without air conditioning.

Then the network was also built on IP-based platform, which further helps in reducing the cost. The IP-based network the cost of servicing data and calls is as low as, say, eight paise for a one-minute voice call. For the incumbents the cost is 30 paise but this includes the contentious interconnection usage charge (IUC, which is what one operator pays another to land a call).

Jio claims the IUC of 14 paise for a call minute is based on legacy equipment costs and way too high. Incumbents hotly contest that.

FactorDaily reviewed a presentation made by Reliance Jio to the government, in which Jio said that companies (like Airtel, Vodafone and Idea) do not want to reduce the IUC because it is a revenue earner. It said that in the last seven to eight years incumbents have not invested in legacy networks, which was for voice calls only, cost of which has already been recovered. The recent investments have been in building a data network for 3G and 4G. On these networks the IUC should be much lower, Jio argues.

If TRAI indeed cuts the IUC, as the industry expects, the impact on incumbent bottomlines could be painful. Operating profits of Airtel and Idea may shrink 7% to 9%, estimates Mint.

Such an outcome would favour Jio, which according to a senior executive, has just 5% of its network utilisation on voice. For incumbents, the comparable number is about 50% to 60%.

Incumbents beg to differ. “We have to run three networks — 2G, 3G and 4G… They are bound to have that because of 600 million 2G users. One cannot have a complete IP-based network,” says the first executive with an incumbent operator.

Analysts believe Jio is set to save money on calls. “We expect IUC will likely be revised down modestly in the upcoming review. Our sensitivity suggests Jio gets over Rs 25 to 30 savings per customer for a reduction in IUC from 14 paise to 8 paise, which it could pass to customers in the form of lower prices,” writes Navin Killa of UBS in a report.

JioPhone: The Final Assault

Industry experts expect Jio to continue to make more losses in the years to come. Financial services company IIFL’s telecom team expects Jio to ramp up marketshare to 22% and revenues and revenue to Rs 60,000 crore, but it will report breakeven not before 2021-22.

Jio’s free data, content and devices are expected to delay its profitability — the latest being the JioPhone. Ambani has said that Jio’s contract manufacturers, including Foxconn and Flextronics, will make five million of these phones every week.

Most of these phones will be lapped up by the millions shifting from feature phones straight to 4G, being swept into it by the data tsunami triggered by Jio and incumbent operators reacting to it. Ask phone maker veteran and Micromax co-founder Rahul Sharma about the jump from 2G to 4G. He said demand for 3G phones has fallen off the cliff. “People in places like Jammu were asking for 4G devices. We had to recalibrate our strategy,” he said.
The JioPhone has been a year in the making. “Almost a year ago, executives at Reliance Jio started working on this phone,” says the first insider. “We are talking to a large number of vendors for chips including Qualcomm, MediaTek, and others.”

There are also special plans for the JioPhone user: Rs 23, Rs 53 and Rs 153, valid for two days, one week and 28 days, respectively, and with it comes half GB of data every day, and zero call charges.

Analysts feel that Ambani’s pricing might be steep for a feature phone user. “We believe consumers that buy a Rs 1,500 phone and pay Rs 164 per month (Rs153 for 28 days) are two mutually exclusive sets. In our view, ARPU for most feature phone users in India is less than Rs 100,” writes Manish Adukia, analyst with Goldman Sachs in a report on the JioPhone. (ARPU is short for average revenue per user a month.)

Adukia buttresses his argument with information from Vodafone India that shows 70% of feature phone users have an ARPU of less Rs 50.

But there may be a small uptick in ARPU for the industry that may indicate more spending by customers on their phone bills since Jio launched. TRAI data shows that prepaid ARPU in India climbed to Rs 112 in July 2017, nearly 9% more than the Rs 103 it was before Jio launched.

The JioPhone, which may need price revisions in future for a better product-market fit, has its own back story. A Rs 1,500 phone with 4G capabilities was unheard off till two years ago. Pankaj Pawar, part of Ambani’s core Jio team, held discussions with mobile phone makers as early as 2013-14 to bring out devices at lower price points.

“We were working with various OEMs,” the third insider says. “They were reluctant. They said that there weren’t enough phones, not enough connections… We started testing every 4G device on our network and set up a small lab.”

None of the handset makers were ready to blink. Team Ambani knew that Jio was a non-starter at the market prices for 4G phones.

So, in 2015, Reliance brought LYF to the market, a cheap 4G phone starting at Rs 3,000. Within a couple of quarters, it was among the top five handset brands in the country alongside Samsung and Micromax.

That experience evidently helped. The JioPhone has come more than a year after LYF was launched.

The quarters ahead will show if Jio will deliver returns to justify its $31.3 billion investment. Morgan Stanley estimates Jio will spend $2 billion a quarter for the rest of 2017-18 before capital expenditure slows down next financial year. It also estimates that if Jio follows on its current trajectory, it will have 226 million users by 2021 at an ARPU of Rs 223 (up from Rs 175 now).

At that stage, Morgan Stanley says Jio will start making returns to Reliance Industries’ 2.5 million shareholders, including Ambani — $382 million in net profit with free cash flow of $1.57 billion.

However, Jio will have to buy more spectrum in the coming months, especially in the 700 MHz band. Morgan Stanley’s worst case scenario assumes Jio’s spending goes up and ARPU not keeping pace (Rs 181 over 204 million customers). If that happens, predicts the analyst firm, Jio’s losses will continue ($1.7 billion in 2021).

The Jio story has just begun. The difference in Ambani’s second coming into the telecom and digital world is that there isn’t a hard stop like last time when he had to step away from Reliance Infocomm.


The story was updated at 4:50pm on October 23, 2017 to correct typos.