Amassing 250 million subscribers in little more than two years, while more than ruffling the feathers of established players Bharti Airtel et al along the way and securing a deal to acquire spectrum assets from his brother’s ailing rival business, there is every reason for Reliance Jio’s ambitious leader Mukesh Ambani (pictured) to be bullish right now.

And last week, Ambani’s comments at the India Mobile Congress event suggested he is far from finished with an ongoing assault to establish the developing nation as a major mobile player.

After splurging an estimated $37 billion on Jio’s 4G LTE network so far, which has no doubt done wonders for the country’s ongoing digital revolution, Ambani’s attentions are now firmly fixed on the next-generation.

He confidently claimed at the event that India will be “fully 4G by 2020”, paving the way for 5G two years from now.

Putting this accomplishment into context, Ambani spoke of the country’s remarkable rise among the ranks in the two years since he launched Reliance Jio.

“India has moved from 155th rank in mobile broadband penetration to being the number one nation in mobile data consumption in the world in less than two years,” he said in a keynote address. “This is the fastest transition from anywhere in the world, from 2G to 3G to 4G, and by 2020 I believe that India will be a fully 4G country, ready for 5G ahead of other countries.”

Revolutionising digital India
While Ambani and Jio cannot be completely credited with India’s rising position as a mobile giant, with the government also driving a major push around the country’s digital development, the operator has indeed had a major impact in making data and even smartphones much more accessible to hundreds of millions of Indians.

From coming to market in 2016 with a trial offering completely free voice and data to snare market share, to dramatically dropping prices and instigating a price war with rivals, the company has also pushed hard to ensure millions that still used a feature phone were able to transition to a device with 4G capabilities at limited cost through its own-brand JioPhone.

Putting Jio’s impact into numbers, the company said it recorded 11GB of 4G data use on its network per user per month in its fiscal Q2 (the three months to end-September).

Comparatively, before the company’s entrance into the market, data consumption on Indian networks was close to 300MB per user per month, mostly on a 2G or 3G connection.

Neil Shah, research director at Counterpoint Research, recently said that before Jio’s arrival, rival operators had positioned themselves to cash out on 2G voice and data subscribers, while rolling out their 3G and 4G networks at a “snail’s pace”.

Rural impact
Indeed, during his speech, Ambani spoke of the impact India’s digital revolution has had, with special focus on the country’s rural population.

“In the past eight months alone, as many as 50 million villages have got affordable smartphones,” he said. “For most of them, it is not only their first phone but also their first radio and music player, their first TV, first camera and the first internet in their lives.”

The rural influx helped Jio break the 250 million subscriber barrier during its fiscal Q2 and it was the only operator in the country to generate revenue gains in the last two quarters. It also announced its LTE network is on track to reach 99 per cent of the population by end-March 2019.

Is 2020 achievable?
No doubt, catching up and even surpassing some of the world’s developed nations on 4G is a remarkable achievement.

But, being one of the leaders on 5G, which is what Ambani seems to be suggesting if the country is 5G-ready by 2020, is a different challenge altogether.

The Indian government’s telecoms secretary Aruna Sundararajan told Bloomberg in August the country was “not there yet on 5G” and it was expected to fall around two-to-three years behind South Korea, Japan and China.

So, with the US aiming for commercial mobile 5G launches at the end of this year and the start of 2019, the three Asian giants expected to follow swiftly after and developed Europe also largely earmarking a launch in two years, are Ambani’s 5G ambitions realistic?

Speaking to Mobile World Live, Parv Sharma, research analyst at Counterpoint Research, believes so, with operators now gearing up for 5G by deploying LTE-Advanced networks in the country and a planned 5G spectrum auction reportedly being targeted for the end of 2019.

“Once the spectrum auction is carried out (somewhere near 2020) and the spectrum is available, the operators will start rolling out 5G networks. 5G networks, however, will not be widely available initially,” he said.

And you would be a brave man to bet against Ambani, given the impact he has had over the past two years.

The company now has a 21 per cent market share, putting long-term market leader Bharti Airtel on the ropes, while former number two player Vodafone India and number three player Idea Cellular were somewhat forced to merge in a multi-billion dollar deal, in a bid to keep pace with the newcomer (thus establishing Vodafone Idea with the new entity becoming the country’s number one operator).

In a sense, Ambani propelled the whole industry into action, and he is now adamant that 5G is on the horizon for the country.

And with 5G, India is well “on its way to becoming a mobile powerhouse alongside the Asian giants”, added Sharma.

To make it happen, India’s richest man will have to put his money where his mouth is all over again.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.