Reliance Jio looks determined to crash the 5G vendor party.
The Indian operator says it has developed 5G technology that Jio Platforms, its parent company, will sell globally following deployment in its own network in the coming year. (See Jio gets $4.4B Google investment and touts in-house 5G products.)
"Jio has designed and developed a complete 5G solution from scratch," boasted Mukesh Ambani, the chairman of parent company Reliance Industries, at a recent annual general meeting. "This will enable us to launch a world-class 5G services in India, using 100% home-grown technologies and solutions."
"Once Jio's 5G solution is proven at India-scale, Jio Platforms would be well-positioned to be an exporter of 5G solutions to other telecom operators globally, as a complete managed service," he added.
It is first for an Indian telco and a move that will pit Jio against giants of the equipment market including Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia.
It has also prompted some industry head-scratching given Jio's lack of experience or expertise in the equipment market. Observers are still not sure how Jio will address the global 5G opportunity.
But Jio has never been shy about making a dramatic entrance. It came from nowhere in 2016 to overturn India's telecom sector just a few years later, and today ranks as the country's number-one telco. The latest bid to play a role in the global 5G market is unlikely to be a half-hearted effort.
"It is an ambitious statement, and Jio will likely adopt a novel approach to enter the global market as a 5G vendor," says Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst with Heavy Reading.
It is hard not to have reservations about the latest move given the might of the established vendors.
China's Huawei, the world's biggest 5G supplier, currently invests around $20 billion annually in research and development and began working on the technology as far back as 2009.
Many will doubt Jio's ability to have an impact.
At the same time, Jio has a reputation for unusual gambits that pay off.
In India, it has already built a highly automated 4G network from scratch, taking advantage of the latest cloud- and software-based technologies available to it at the time. Tareq Amin, one of the key executives who was involved in that project, is now the chief technology officer of Japan's Rakuten Mobile, which similarly aspires to become a global technology vendor.
Heavy Reading's Brown thinks the biggest challenge for Jio is scaling up. "Jio would need to scale across many markets to achieve economies of scale," he says. "Typically, the vendors scale across many markets, which helps them spread the cost and leverage insights and learnings from different geographies."
It is also quite late to the 5G market. If it tests and launches 5G in India this year, it is unlikely to have a product for sale until 2022.
In other countries, 5G deployments began 18 months ago. Jio's offer will not arrive until long after the first wave of 5G investment.
The use of open RAN could provide a spur. The technology, which promises an opportunity for smaller vendors, is in demand by service providers. Jio is already a member of the O-RAN Alliance, the main specifications group, suggesting its 5G products will be O-RAN-compliant.
Another acquisition on the cards?
Jio's takeover of US-based Radisys in 2018 could also figure in its 5G plans.
"Acquiring Radisys is a key step in Jio's journey," says Brown. "It provides both scale and capability to the company and a protocol stack that will help." (See India's Reliance Industries Snaps Up Radisys .)
Before its 4G service launch, Jio also bought another vendor called Rancore Technologies, which played a crucial role in Jio's 4G tests and trials.
Further acquisitions seem likely. One in the open RAN space would give shape to Jio's vision of becoming a global 5G vendor, and Jio is in a strong fiscal position after recently attracting about $20 billion in funding from technology players including Facebook, Google, Qualcomm and Intel, plus private-equity firms such as KKR, General Atlantic and Silver Lake. (See What will Jio do with its recent windfall?)
Finally, a global vendor from India?
Considerable domestic excitement surrounds Jio's move.
"The industry has been looking out for a global telecom vendor from India for 20 years," says Brown. "It is such a massive market. Besides, most of the top vendors have research and development centers in India, so there is a strong capability and skill set [in the country]. The required ingredients are all there, so who knows?"
What's unclear is whether Jio's network products would be made available in India.
Rivals may naturally be wary of using a competitor's in-house technology, while Jio might worry about losing any network advantage that comes from its own kit.
Airtel and Vodafone Idea, Jio's two main rivals, could also be concerned about using 5G technology from an unproven source in mission-critical applications and public safety infrastructure.
On the other hand, the possible disappearance of Chinese vendors from the Indian market would create a vacuum Jio could fill. And India's government would probably be keen as it tries to boost reliance on homegrown technology.
— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading