Reliance’s Jio Platforms, the largest telecom operator in India, plans to roll out a 5G network in the country in the second half of 2021, top executive Mukesh Ambani announced on Tuesday.
“India is today among the best digitally connected nations in the world. In order to maintain this lead, policy steps are needed to accelerate early rollout of 5G, and to make it affordable and available everywhere. I assure you that Jio will pioneer the 5G revolution in India in the second half of 2021,” said Ambani, who controls Jio Platforms’ parent firm Reliance Industries, at a trade conference.
The announcement comes as a surprise as India has yet to grant spectrum for 5G network to telecom networks in the country. At this moment, it is also unclear when India will begin auctioning the 5G spectrum.
Ambani, who is India’s richest man, said he was hopeful that the rollout of 5G network in India will enable the world’s second-largest internet market to lead what he termed as the fourth industrial revolution. “Jio Platforms, with its family of over 20 startup partners, has built world-class capabilities in artificial intelligence, cloud computing, big data, machine learning, internet of things, blockchain, etc.,” he said.
The telecom operator, which has raised over $20 billion this year from a roster of high-profile investors, including Facebook and Google, said the company is also hopeful that its bouquet of services in education, healthcare, financial services and new commerce categories “once proven in India, will be offered to the rest of the world to address global challenges.”
Gopal Vittal, the chief executive of Airtel (India’s second-largest telecom operator), said the company was hopeful that India would have established a nationwide 5G network in two to three years. He, however, did not share a timeline for when the rollout of 5G on his network would begin. (In a recent earnings call, Vittal had warned that the proposed price of the spectrum of 5G was “very, very expensive” — something that won’t support any kind of business model.)
During his speech, Ambani also urged industry players to rely on locally produced hardware and components. “As the digitalisation of the Indian economy and Indian society picks up speed, the demand for digital hardware will grow enormously. We cannot rely on large-scale imports in this area of critical national need.”
Airtel has previously said that it is open to the idea of collaborating with global firms for components. “Huawei, over the last 10 or 12 years, has become extremely good with their products to a point where I can safely today say their products at least in 3G, 4G that we have experienced is significantly superior to Ericsson and Nokia without a doubt. And I use all three of them,” said Sunil Mittal, the founder of Airtel, at a conference earlier this year. In the same panel, U.S. commerce secretary Wilbur Ross had urged India and other allies of the U.S. to avoid Huawei.
Vittal today also urged that India should adopt the global 5G standard. “There is sometimes talks that India must have its own 5G standard. This is an existential thread which could lock India out of the global ecosystem and slow down the pace of innovation. We could let down our citizens if you allow that to happen.”
On today’s panel, which was attended by Mittal as well as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Ambani said stakeholders also need to think about ways to serve nearly 300 million people who are still on 2G networks in India. “Urgent policy steps are needed to ensure that these underprivileged people have an affordable smartphone, so that they too can benefit from Direct Benefit Transfer into their bank accounts, and actively participate in the Digital Economy,” he added.