Jio is a large project even by Reliance standards; it is a big bet on a sector that has suffered from pricing pressures and high debt levels. What was the thinking behind the move?
We never thought of Jio as an extension of the old world telecom. We had done voice telephony in 2002, so we had some critical core competency in this space, but at Reliance, we are blessed with a set of engineers and leaders who are obsessed with technology. It really stems from my father’s [Dhirubhai Ambani] days when he used to say that we will always invest in businesses of the future.
We could clearly see that more than the usage of telecom, the world was digitising. The ability to build the next generation Internet is really the opportunity that I am a big believer in now. Essentially, this is the fourth revolution. The first revolution came from coal and steam and we created a whole new framework of railways and mechanised movement. The second revolution came with electricity. With electricity and fuel, we were able to mechanise all activity. The third came with computers and information; and it extended to the current age with the combination of connectivity, software, and information.
The fourth revolution, what we are going through now, is bringing about a convergence of the physical and digital. And that creates a completely new capability—it helps mechanise the human mind. With this, we are able to bring the power of computing to our day-to-day lives.
In India, we have the opportunity to really leapfrog into building this infrastructure. Rather than thinking about building a conventional telco, we deliberated on how we can provide digital services, how we can actually change productivity and service delivery, and create an opportunity for the next generation of Indians.
You speak of creating an opportunity for the next generation. Where do you place Jio in this conversation?
These steps are really the means to an end. For us, the larger goal is to enable Indians to win their rightful place in this new age, when digitisation is still in its infancy. We have got the run of another 40-50 years where we will see immense changes. Voice communications networks will convert to consumer Internet.
In India, we have now started the ‘value Internet’, where it is being used for transactions, money, and commerce. This is a big point in the journey. We see the same thing happening for health services and education in a big way. Therefore, by building a digital ecosystem in India, we are creating the most ‘essential infrastructure’ that every young Indian needs today. We, at Reliance, have the size, scale, and the risk taking capability and hence, let us take the initiative to build something that may provide a foundation for future generations. Together, we can take India from the rank of 134 to the top 10 in terms of broadband usage.
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When you started in 2011 there were many technologies around. LTE [long-term evolution] was still evolving. What was the thought process at that time?
This is an evolution. When you have a group of passionately involved people, you can see the future. So, we saw it pretty clearly in 2010. As we can today sense what the future will be like five years hence. We are already building the connectivity infrastructure that will be 5G and 6G compliant. We think the world will increasingly move towards using artificial intelligence [AI]. What it means is that people will use data more sensibly and accurately, align it with their own judgment and make decisions that are more sensible and accurate. Right now we are integrating our platforms with AI big time. These are platforms that give the benefits of AI to ordinary Indians. For instance, take an MRI. For a radiologist to read an MRI it is always challenging. Instead, if you have machine to read it really fast and accurately, it strengthens the judgment of the radiologist. It is like the evolution from the typewriter to the word processor, which can correct your spellings.
I can give you examples of AI in education, healthcare, and so on. But the critical piece is still connectivity, and to my mind connectivity will become faster. The world will quickly move to faster speeds and lower latency.
With lower latencies you can make machines work better. For robotics to work, for automatic self-driven cars to work, we will need much lower latencies and higher speeds, and that is what 5G, 6G, and 7G will provide. This is how we will convert science to technology to engineering to effective usage. I think that the world is learning all of this pretty fast. It is no longer a competitive advantage but an evolving reality.
Digitisation is still evolving, as you have said. Where do you think we are headed?
Digitisation, artificial intelligence, or value Internet, eventually augment human capability. When you and I were 18 years old, we had to be taught many things. Now an 18-year-old figures out these things on his mobile phone and within a few minutes he can be more educated than all of us on a particular topic. This is happening to millions and millions of the people at the same time. That is the power of the new interconnected world. And there is also the power of creating a new society where our processing power is enabling us to ‘think’, unlike the previous revolutions which augmented our capacity to ‘do’. So, in other words, we are actually increasing the brain-power of humanity as a whole. I am a big believer in artificial intelligence—its power to augment the human brain to do more with the help of technology and make us more accurate.
Indian telecom revenues are growing at about 5%-6%, and it has slowed in recent times. What do you think will kick-start the growth again?
I still think India will follow the global paradigm. In the long term, we will be at par with the rest of the world. So telecom should be about 1.5% to 2% of GDP [gross domestic product] and will grow in double digits annually. If you look at a three to five year period, my sense is we will be at par or ahead of the curve.