Raising $15 billion through 11 deals over three-months in a normal environment is impressive for any company.
But, doing it during a global pandemic when stock markets are fluctuating, confidence in investing is low and the effects of said pandemic on an emerging market country like India are not yet fully known, is unprecedented and quite a testament to the potential of both the company, and the market as a whole.
Reliance Jio Platforms, the digital services juggernaut housing the country’s largest operator Reliance Jio, has been on a hot streak of deal making resulting in investors from the US and the Middle East all clamouring for a piece.
For Mukesh Ambani, Indian billionaire and chairman of Jio Platform’s parent Reliance Industries, his big risk in establishing an operator which shook up the Indian telecoms market by initially offering free data packages to lure subscribers, is starting to pay off big time.
“Deal making is both an art and a science, and Reliance Industries seems to have mastered it better than anyone else…it’s hard to find a parallel to this anywhere else in the world,” Sanchit Vir Gogia, CEO of digital advisory company Greyhound Research, said in an analyst note.
Social media giant Facebook set the ball rolling in April, announcing it was taking a 9.99 per cent stake in Jio Platforms for $5.7 billion, making it the largest minority shareholder in the company.
This triggered a flurry of fundraising from US and Middle Eastern investors between April and June, resulting in a sale of 25 per cent of the company.
Reliance Industries then appeared to indicate that at least one of its aims had been achieved, declaring itself debt free last month, almost a year ahead of schedule.
However, any idea pulling itself out of the red would halt the deals were quickly dismissed after Intel, through its investment unit, became the latest investor to pick up a stake earlier this month.
Jio’s operator rivals
Neil Shah, analyst at Counterpoint Research told Mobile World Live Jio’s data-centric network, which has attracted close to 400 million subscribers, and the fact it operates in the most important “open” market in the world, makes the recent bets into the company a no brainer.
“If you look at India, it’s the second-largest mobile market in the world and is still quite under penetrated. It is on the cusp of massive digital transformation, mostly driven by mobile technology,” he said. “Since the growth potential is high, the return on investment for investors is going to be even higher.”
So, clearly India’s digital segment has the potential, but arguably the only operator truly benefitting at the moment is Jio.
Is it therefore set to dominate, or will the promise of India’s potential lead to more (perhaps riskier) bets into the country’s other operators?
Well, shortly after Facebook announced its investment, rumours emerged Google was looking to follow its rival and increase its presence in India.
Financial Times reported that as well as holding talks about an investment in Jio, Google had turned its attentions to acquiring a 5 per cent stake in joint venture Vodafone Idea, which has been dogged by recent financial struggles.
At the time of writing, there has been no word the talks led to anything, but that’s not to say they won’t, particular when considering the ongoing advertising battle between Google and Facebook.
Shah noted Facebook’s access to Jio’s ecosystem now makes it “a more lucrative platform to marketers, which is “a loss for Google in this war of eyeballs”.
“Google definitely would like to bet on another horse and the debt-reeling Vodafone Idea is definitely a target, if Google could shape Vodafone Idea’s strategy to build a more lucrative business beyond being just selling voice and data plans,” Shah said.
He noted the operator still has close to 300 million subscribers, meaning it could “also be one of the key customers for Google Cloud and other Google properties which it can cross-sell to millions of users via the Vodafone-Idea channel”.
Satish Meena, senior forecast analyst at Forrester concurred, stating Google was looking to make bigger bets in India. On the operator side, he believes Vodafone Idea and former market leader Bharti Airtel are on the hunt for both investment and partners, “to create an ecosystem of services beyond the telco”.
Indeed, Reuters reported in June that Airtel was courting another US tech giant, Amazon, with talks about a $2 billion investment.
Jio’s next moves
So, it is likely Jio’s operator rivals may follow its model and look for some overseas cash.
But, for the company itself, attention turns to what next: how will it continue its momentum? And as India’s market leader, will its recent cash injection translate into a quicker 5G push for the country?
Not likely, according to Meena, who said flat out India was still not ready for investment in 5G, so it was too early to make a call.
For Shah, after going debt free, the company can now at least look at a vision of building an ecosystem of connectivity, commerce, cloud and content domestically, before potentially branching out its operations globally.
“Investing in rolling out FTTH, IoT and 5G networks should also be a priority to maximise its ecosystem opportunities beyond consumers,” he said.
It appears e-commerce could be Jio Platform’s next major short-term play.
Meena pointed to the fact that Facebook, through investments in its Marketplace and Jio Platforms, with various enterprise consumer plays in music streaming, financial services and even a domestic online grocery shopping platform dubbed JioMart, already have the building blocks in place.
“Facebook needs men and women on the ground to execute the e-commerce model, and Reliance needs a platform for customers and merchants like WhatsApp. With this deal, both these needs can be fulfilled,” he said.
Gogia predicted Jio Platforms, with Facebook’s help, will now look to leverage technology and capitalise on other assets within the Reliance Industries moniker and offer “omni-channel retail”, across a number of areas, including pharmaceuticals, electronics, fashion and lifestyle.
“This is not a digital opportunity alone. This is a hybrid opportunity, where Reliance Industries will marry its prowess in both domains,” he said.
And the three market watchers suggested these roads, the e-commerce push and the flurry of investments, will lead to Ambani’s ultimate end game for Reliance Platforms.
“The idea is to go for an IPO next year with a valuation of $125 billion to $150 billion. All depends on how they are able to execute JioMart and e-commerce operations in next 12 to 18 months,” said Meena.
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.