Is 2020 the Year That Reliance Becomes India’s Digital Champion?

In 2016 when India’s richest man, the oil to retail billionaire, Mukesh Ambani launched his nationwide mobile broadband service Jio Infocomm, he amped up the digital economy in the world’s second most populous nation. Now he and Reliance Industries Ltd. are intent on riding that digital wave to incumbent-challenging new heights.

The $22 billion launch of Jio instantly created millions of new screen-based users in parts of the country where there had not even been TV households. It forced the consolidation of once-dominant pay-TV and cell phone conglomerates. And it ushered in an acceleration of connected services from the likes of Facebook and Netflix, China’s Tiktok, and the giant Disney-owned streaming platform HotStar.

The success of online video has been a boon for Indian filmmakers, who have embraced the long-form series format with glee. India’s content creators are now able to juggle competing offers from multiple rival platforms. Budgets and production values are rising.

News in recent days suggests that Ambani is now pushing back against Amazon in the grocery field, where his Reliance Retail and Jio have joined forces to launch home delivery service Jio Mart. With 365 million captive phone customers, amassed in just three years, RIL must be taken as a serious competitor to incumbents Amazon and the Walmart-owned Flipkart.

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Ambani’s media-tech ambitions are just as big. And 2020 may be the year they take another leap forward.

RIL spent over $700 million on acquisitions in 2018 to build controlling stakes in digital cable television and broadband players Hathway Cable and Datacom, and Den Networks. They added to a collection that already included the Network 18 group that operates several television channels and a film studio as a joint venture with Viacom. RIL also owns stakes in Bollywood distribution giant Eros (which includes streaming platform ErosNow), producer Balaji Telefilms (with streamer ALTBalaji) and music streamer Saavn.

Ambani’s plan for 2020 is to hive off all RIL’s media and telecoms businesses into a separate unit, shift their debt burden to the parent petroleum company, and begin to operate the digital assets as a single business. Financial analysts have estimated that could have a valuation of $70 billion. That’s smaller than Amazon, Alibaba or Netflix, but twice the size of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Corp.

Giving India a digital champion, and pushing back foreign multinationals, is a politically savvy move in India’s current, feverish climate. Ambani understands that.

Where the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has slowed down the expansion of foreign-owned Amazon and Flipkart, to protect India’s nation of small shopkeepers, RIL and Jio Mart are stepping in

2020 should see the take-off of cloud-based business services as part of a 10-year deal struck between RIL and Microsoft last August. This is intended to develop data centers, AI technology including speech recognition systems, and an India-specific Internet-of Things.

And the government would cheer if RIL and Jio could do a better job of developing the cashless economy, which Modi clumsily sprung on the country in November 2016.

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