Here’s a rather phenomenal fact: Reliance Jio has been in operation as a wireless carrier in India for just five years, and it already covers 99% of the country’s population with 4G LTE. It has also erected four million macro cells.
The company has indigenously developed its own core and radio access network (RAN) technology for 4G and 5G. And it’s poised to roll out 5G as soon as the Indian government auctions the country’s C-Band spectrum for use by carriers.
Reliance Jio Senior Vice President Aayush Bhatnagar was with Reliance Industries before it created Reliance Jio, and he’s been instrumental in the creation of the 4G network. In an interview with FierceWireless, Bhatnagar said, “We are the only VoLTE network in the world with no switched circuits as fallback.”
While other countries, such as the United States, continue to struggle to close their digital divides, Jio has delivered 4G wireless service to rural and far-flung villages within just a few years. And because of its leadership, “the competition had to follow,” said Bhatnagar.
Not only has Jio deployed four million macro towers, but it’s also deployed fiber backhaul, small cells and data centers as part of the infrastructure necessary for a nationwide wireless network — in five years.
When Jio first entered the wireless scene in India, there were several wireless carriers. But now, there are only three: Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea.
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Of course, India has the benefit of a large population of ready and willing workers, whereas some countries are experiencing worker shortages. Jio used the services of third-party contractors for much of its infrastructure deployment, along with its own teams.
Bhatnagar specified that Jio Platforms is related to the company’s software development, and Reliance Jio is the name of the company’s wireless network.
He said Jio Platforms’ 4G/5G combo core is cloud-native by design. The software rides on white box hardware that is supplied by vendors such as HP and Dell, using standard processors.
He said, “The RAN is a totally different ballgame. There are so many different domains: analog, digital, then you have the electronic design, mechanical and production processes.” He indicated that manufacturing of RAN components was, in itself, a big deal. “Just because you can create RAN in small numbers doesn’t mean you can produce in large numbers.” And the software elements are complex, as well, requiring all kinds of different programming languages.
Jio has created its own radio units. In addition, he said, “We have our own CU and DU. We’re using O-RAN interfaces that comply with the 3GPP and the O-RAN Alliance standards.”
The Indian government granted Jio 100 MHz of C-Band spectrum to use for the purpose of trialing its 5G technology. Jio selected about nine cities to run the trials that are currently happening.
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The government has also cleared the country’s C-Band spectrum for use by wireless carriers, but it has not yet scheduled the spectrum auction.
Bhatnagar said that C-Band spectrum is emerging as one of the most popular spectrum bands for carriers around the globe, and the device ecosystem is responding by manufacturing 5G devices for the band. He noted that Apple’s iPhone 13, announced last week, supports both C-Band and mmWave spectrum.
Although the iPhone only garners about 3.5% – 4% of the Indian smartphone market, there are many Android devices in India that support 5G from companies such as Samsung, Oppo and Vivo.
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While the Indian wireless carriers are looking forward to getting access to C-band spectrum, their bigger concern is the business model for 5G. Average revenue per user (ARPU) for the big wireless carriers in the U.S. exceeds $50, but ARPU for Indian wireless carriers is typically less than $5.
Bhatnagar said, “ARPUs are low, but volumes are extremely high. Obviously, the business case has to be sound.”
The Indian wireless carriers do have concerns that the government will ask too much money for the C-Band spectrum, making their business models a challenge.
Jio Platforms is a software company, and Reliance Jio is a network operator. “Reliance Jio is a customer of Platforms in that sense,” said Bhatnagar.
The Platforms business has its own products, which Jio plans to monetize, similar to how Rakuten is monetizing its wireless technologies through its new company Symphony.
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“The breadth and depth of the Jio Platforms 5G product line is comparable to Tier-1 software providers globally,” said Bhatnagar. “3GPP defines 23 Core network functions in the network, apart from unique automation capabilities which only a Tier-1 product line can fulfill. All the software IPR belongs to Jio Platforms, with no third-party moving parts/integrators.”
These products handle more than 9 billion calls and 6 billion messages in the core network across India, apart from high transaction volumes in the EPC and IoT network.
“We do not rely on vendors,” said Bhatnagar. “As far as monetization is concerned, that is very much in the cards. We will trial in our home market.”