India’s Jio creates 5G tech in-house, teams with Google on affordable smartphone

As major investments from tech giants stack up for India’s Jio Platforms, the chairman of parent Reliance Industries said a complete 5G solution created from scratch in-house by Jio can be ready for field deployments in 2021.

Speaking during Reliance’s Annual General Meeting on Wednesday, billionaire owner Mukesh Ambani laid out visions for its Jio Platforms unit, including plans to export 5G technologies to other telecom operators globally.

Jio Platforms is behind India’s largest mobile operator, which shook up the telecom market since entering the scene just four years ago – now counting more than 388 million subscribers. Ambani said he sees a strong path for Jio to connect over 500 million mobile customers, more than a billion smart sensors and over 50 million homes and business in the next three years.

With its 4G LTE-only network, Reliance Jio disrupted India’s telecom market that was largely 2G, offering very low pricing, broad coverage, and data. Some of India’s numerous operators at the time were forced to exit or decided to consolidate, leaving three major players – Vodafone Idea, Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio.

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According to GSMA’s Mobile Economy 2020 report (PDF), the resulting price war following Jio’s entry has meant India now has some of the cheapest mobile data pricing in the world, while 4G now accounts for almost 60% of total connections in the country.

Jio Platforms has secured billions in investments, including Google which said yesterday it would put $4.5 billion into the company for a 7.7% share. Facebook is investing $5.7 billion for just under 10% in Jio Platforms. Other investors include Intel Capital, Qualcomm Ventures, private-equity firms Silver Lake, Vista Equity Partners, and General Atlantic, and Abu Dhabi’s two largest sovereign investment arms.  

Ambani said the operator’s 4G and fiber network is already powered by several core software technologies and components developed by Jio engineers in India.

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“This capability and know-how that Jio has developed positions Jio on the cutting edge of another exciting frontier – 5G,” Ambani said. The in-house 5G solution “will enable us to launch a world-class 5G service in India using 100% home-grown technologies and solutions.”

News of Jio developing end-to-end 5G technology to replace third-party vendors previously surfaced in March. During the AGM, Reliance referenced a 5G stack built by Jio employees.

In a post about Jio's latest strategic partnerships and fundraising blitz (more than $20 billion in eight weeks), Counterpoint Research VP of Research Neil Shah pointed to Reliance Industries' earlier acquisition of Radisys in regards to the network software stack. 

"With 5G around the corner, Jio can lay out a fully-controlled greenfield network to build the software stack via Radisys in fixed as well as wireless networks," wrote Shah. "It remains to be seen if there are any other big moves on the Radio Access Network (RAN) hardware side or it will depend on the long-term partner Samsung."

Speaking at Reliance's AGM, Ambani said Jio's 5G solution will be ready for trials as soon as 5G spectrum becomes available and ready for field deployments in 2021.

Jio can easily upgrade its 4G network to 5G, he told investors, citing the converged all-IP network architecture. And Jio has sights beyond India for its 5G tech.

“Once Jio’s 5G solution is proven in India, Jio Platforms will be well positioned to be an exporter of 5G solutions to other telecom operators globally as a complete managed service,” Ambani said. 

Affordable smartphones with Google

Google’s involvement with Jio also includes a commercial agreement to jointly develop an affordable 4G smartphone.

Part of Jio’s impact in connecting mobile users in India was the introduction of low-cost feature phone with 4G connectivity. The JioPhone launched in August of 2017 and sold over 100 million devices, costing less than $10.

In 2019, India surpassed the U.S. as the second-largest smartphone market globally with 158 million shipments and is still under penetrated relative to many markets, according to Counterpoint Research. By 2025 India will still be the second largest smartphone market with 1.04 billion users, only behind China, according to the GSMA.

Still, Ambani in his presentation said there are 350 million Indians who currently use a 2G feature phone that would want to upgrade to a conventional smartphone if it was affordable.

“We believe we can design an entry-level 4G, or even a 5G, smartphone for a fraction of its current cost,” Ambani said. 

To that end, it's partnering with Google to build an Android-based smartphone operating system, designed with India in mind.

RELATED: Radisys supports Reliance Jio behind the scenes

“Through this partnership we are confident that we can accelerate the national mission of putting a smart device in the hands of every Indian,” he said, adding that existing 2G users shouldn’t be deprived of the benefits that the digital and data revolution offer. “Jio is determined to make India 2G-mukt.”

Google’s investment in Jio is the first part of a $10 billion Google for India Digitization Fund announced earlier this week. It aims to help accelerate India’s digital economy by making strategic investments in the country over the next 5-7 years.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai in a video appearance said “getting technology into the hands of more people is a big part of our mission,” and Google through its partnership with Jio Platforms sees a chance to have a greater impact than either entity could alone.

Pichai said he was excited the joint collaboration would focus on increasing access for hundreds of millions of Indians who don’t currently own a smartphone, while simultaneously improving the mobile experience for all.

Updated to further clarify nature of 5G tech and include quote from Counterpoint Research.