Receive free Mukesh Ambani updates
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Mukesh Ambani news every morning.
India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani is launching a new model of internet-connected mobile phone for $12, in an attempt to disrupt a market for phones used by around a quarter of a billion people.
The introduction of the “Jio Bharat” phone marks Ambani’s cheapest entry into the market for non-smartphone “feature” phones, which are used by some 250mn people in India. It will at first be available on a trial basis, according to Ambani’s data unit Reliance Jio.
The product, marketed at Rs999, or $12, is the latest disruption by Google and Facebook-backed Jio, which transformed India’s mobile telecoms sector in 2016 with the introduction of initially-free data and super cheap voice plans. The move sparked fierce competition, ultimately leaving Jio and incumbent Bharti Airtel controlling the world’s fastest growing mobile market as an effective duopoly. Jio is part of the Reliance Industries conglomerate.
From the beginning, Jio’s pricing strategy “made it clear they were going for every Indian out there,” said Jayanth Kolla, founder and partner at Bengaluru-based Convergence Catalyst.
“Twenty per cent of India’s [data] subscribers are still on feature phones,” said Kolla, who described Jio’s latest move as “mopping up” customers with the lowest incomes who have previously been deterred from getting online by out-of-reach prices.
Ambani, Reliance Jio chair, said: “There are still 250mn mobile phone users in India who remain ‘trapped’ in the 2G era, unable to tap into basic features of the internet at a time when the world stands at the cusp of a 5G revolution.”
The Bharat, a name for India in various languages, is not Jio’s first handset — it launched 4G-enabled feature phone JioPhone in 2017, priced at Rs1,500, refundable if you returned the phone after three years.
And after Google’s parent company Alphabet bought a 7.7 per cent stake with a $4.5bn investment in 2020, Jio also produced the Android-enabled JioPhone Next smartphone in 2021 — although this was sold online only and was less of a commercial hit, priced at Rs4,499.
With the Jio Bharat, Jio will offer a monthly unlimited voice and 14GB data plan within India for Rs123 ($1.50). By comparison, competitor Bharti Airtel currently offers an unlimited call and 2GB data plan for Rs179 ($2.18).
The Jio Bharat will be assembled in India and will have Reliance’s own video and music streaming apps, JioCinema and JioSaavn, digital payment capability with India’s UPI network, and a camera. Although Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta bought a 10 per cent stake in Jio for $5.7bn, WhatsApp and Facebook are not currently available on Jio Bharat.
“The 2G to 4G conversion in India remains key for the ongoing digital transformation,” said Prabhu Ram, head of industry intelligence at CyberMedia Research. Ram added that Jio’s new phone was a “step in the right direction” in widening access to customers “at the bottom of the pyramid,” but cautioned: “It remains to be seen if Jio’s efforts . . . gain traction with consumers.”