Mukesh Ambani's company will soon open its first 7-Eleven store. Photo: Facebook

“Data is not the new oil, it’s the new soil.” – Mukesh Ambani 

In January 2018, while addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi first expressed his ambition to make India a US$5 trillion economy by 2024.

He reiterated that aim last October during an interview, despite the economy taking major hits due to Covid-19.

But Mukesh Ambani, the chairman of Reliance Industries and India’s richest man, is going one step forward. He said “India will prove cynics wrong by becoming a $5 trillion economy before 2024″ at the India Mobile Congress event in December.

“The economy will not only rebound but will also grow with unprecedented acceleration,” the tycoon said. Putting his faith and conviction in the “enormous transformative power of digital technologies,” he stressed the need to accelerate the rollout of fifth-generation (5G) telecom technology.

But the most important questions are why Ambani is so keen to make India a $5 trillion economy in such a short time, and what role 5G is going to play. 

5G wireless networks are expected to change the way people live and work. They will be faster and able to handle more connected devices than the existing 4G LTE networks, improvements that will enable a wave of new kinds of tech such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and electric vehicles.

India hopes to become more ‘self-reliant’ through the newest digital technology. Photo: AFP/The Times of India/Anindya Chattopadhyay

5G will blur the lines of the physical and digital world. Its impact is going to be on every sector of the economy, but certain sectors such as transportation, health care, education and entertainment will see massive change.

Considering the advantages India has due to the sheer size of its 1.3 billion population, vibrant online commerce and many social-network apps, the country is awash in data – the lifeblood for data analytics and deep learning systems.

It is widely accepted that 5G’s value for India may be even higher than in advanced countries because of the lower levels of investments in physical infrastructure. But the most important thing to note is that whoever holds the most critical infrastructure will hold the future of the Indian economy.

One man in India who is particularly interested in gaining the maximum benefit of this opportunity is Mukesh Ambani. 

Ambani’s big 5G bet

In December 2017, speaking at the HT (Hindustan Times) Leadership Summit, Ambani put forward a blueprint for the next industrial revolution in the country and what roles Reliance was going to play.

“No country has ever emerged as a global power without embracing new technologies wholeheartedly, and without using new-generation energy sources widely,” he said.

He stressed the need to transform the current Indian society into a digital society. Ambani mentioned three sectors his company was aiming to revolutionize in the coming decades – agriculture, education and health care.

But the million-dollar question is how and when he is going to do it. Three years have passed and we see nothing substantial on the ground.

But on May 12, 2020, amid the country’s third-phase Covid-19 lockdown, Modi announced a new economic scheme called “Atmanirbhar Bharat“, which can be translated as “Self-Reliant India,” quite close linguistically to “Reliance India.”

He highlighted that the pandemic crisis had taught the nation some serious lessons, one of them being self-reliance. He also stressed the importance of promoting local products and local technology. 

Soon afterward, Ambani not only applauded Modi’s vision but also dedicated Jio’s 5G solutions to the Atmanirbhar Bharat concept. He termed it as a new era for the Indian tech ecosystem, as Reliance Jio 5G closely aligns with Modi’s stated ambition of placing India at the forefront of developing cutting-edge technology.

People on bicycles pass a Jio store in Kolkata on July 13, 2020. Reliance Jio holds a virtual monopoly on telecom technology in India. Photo: AFP/Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto

He announced a slew of upcoming innovations from Jio such as interactive Jio TV+, a mixed reality (MR) eye-wearable JioGlass and key updates on JioFiber and the video meet app JioMeet, giving a glimpse of how he seeks to drive a 5G revolution in India.

He reiterated: “Jio is poised to play a key role in the development of a 5G ecosystem in India.”

Reliance has been aggressive with its plan to lead the industry by launching 5G in the second half of 2021. Jio claims that it will easily upgrade from 4G to 5G network owing to the telecom’s converged network.

Big Western tech companies are buying into Ambani’s vision to lead the 5G revolution in India: More than $20.2 billion was invested into Jio platforms last year, with Google and Facebook among the top investors. 

Beyond Jio’s early mover advantage, it also has the support of a friendly regulatory regime, a helping government hand that will further strengthen its monopoly in the market and make it a solid bet for any investor.

But the story doesn’t end here. Ambani is also pitching a new movement called “data localization”, whereby he wants India’s data to be controlled and owned by Indians, not global corporations. 

He apparently believes that the Indian government will soon introduce some data regulation framework to protect this vital resource and ensure data privacy. Such a move would help India to become a leading computing power with world-class data centers.

Ambani has already invested more than $1.6 billion in 24 tech firms across the US, the UK and India, winning 30 US patents from the 53 applied for so far. Those will further help his company develop in-house tech in the artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, blockchain and VR domains. 

At the virtual RAISE (Responsible AI for Social Empowerment) summit last year staged by the Indian government, Ambani said: “India now has all the crucial components in place to become a premier digital society which will generate data at an explosive and exponential rate. Data is the raw material for AI.’’

Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani. Photo: Reuters
Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani. Photo: Handout

He further asserted that only a “tryst with data” will move India faster on a path to a $5 trillion economy by making local industry and small business atmanirbhar (self-reliant). That data tryst, he said, will allow India to dominate new global value chains, modernize Indian agriculture, and deliver high-quality and affordable health care and world-class education.

The fact of the matter is that whoever controls the majority of the data will control the future of India’s economy. Ambani’s Reliance Jio is currently India’s top telecom operator and thus owner of the majority of data consumption in the country. An early leap into 5G will further cement its position.

And while it is quite difficult to predict whether Atmanirbhar Bharat will truly lead India toward self-reliance, it will certainly serve well the interests of Reliance India. 

Ravi Kant

Ravi Kant is a columnist and correspondent for Asia Times based in New Delhi. He mainly writes on economics, international politics and technology. He has wide experience in the financial world and some of his research and analyses have been quoted by the US Congress and Harvard University. He is also the author of the book Coronavirus: A Pandemic or Plandemic. He tweets @Rk_humour.