If anyone doubted the scale of Reliance Industries' (RIL's) ambition in re-entering the Indian telecoms market, those whispers were silenced at this week's launch of Digital India Week. Reliance Jio Infocomm, the conglomerate's youthful wireless operator subsidiary, shared top billing at the event with the largest Indian mobile carrier, Bharti Airtel. Huge sums were bandied around - $39.2bn by RIL, $15.7bn by Airtel, much of that earmarked for 4G.
While the two companies' CEOs were full of smiles on the day, Airtel has a challenge to respond to the launch of Reliance Jio's 4G services this year, and to defend its lead in a market which has been suffering from over-competition and razor-thin margins for years, even without the entry of a deep-pocketed new player.
Taking center stage at such a high profile launch certainly made RIL's ambition to be a leading national mobile and broadband provider clear. Skeptics could dismiss Digital India Week as the latest in a series of government broadband initiatives which have tended to become mired in bureaucracy, dithering and in-fighting, delivering far less than they promised. Anil Ambani chairman of the 'other Reliance' - Reliance Group, which retained the telecoms businesses when the group split in two in 2005 - said pointedly that the Indian story so far had been driven by "3 Ds - democracy, demographics and demand" but had been badly in need of a fourth D - "decisiveness".
Ambani claimed that prime minister Narendra Modi had introduced this element, and the premier certainly knows that the success of his government will rely on channelling India's skills base and economic potential more effectively through technology. In front of a crowd of 15,000 in a Delhi stadium, he gathered the leaders of the Indian telecoms community together and made a very public appeal to domestic and foreign companies to invest in a program that would connect 1.2bn citizens and create 100m new jobs. Among the concrete announcements were plans for a high speed digital highway, a center of excellence focused on the internet of things (IoT), accessible government services with digital lockers to store documents, and e-hospital systems.
Such services, and the wider aim of creating fully digital systems across all government activities, are currently hindered by the lack of infrastructure. Although teledensity and internet access have grown more than sixfold since 2006, internet penetration is still only 20% and the bulk of that usage is still at low speeds. Fixed broadband penetration was 1.1% (122nd in the world) at the end of 2014, according to Deloitte, while mobile broadband penetration was 4.9%. The dichotomy between the two broadband figures indicates why much of the focus of real world Digital India plans is on mobile networks - 3G expansion and, most importantly, LTE acceleration - with fiber infrastructure to support them.