Can RJio Challenge India's Big 3?

Set to launch its 4G service in December, Reliance Jio is busy deploying a state-of-the-art network with which it can challenge India's existing players. (See RJio Prepares for Take-Off and RJio to Launch 4G in December.)

Owned by Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani, the operator plans to invest 850 billion Indian rupees ($13.2 billion) in becoming a "global Tier-1 telecom operator." It has already spent much of the last five years rolling out its infrastructure and amassing an enviable collection of frequencies.

But just how does RJio stack up against India's biggest players -- Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL), Vodafone India and Idea Cellular Ltd. -- when it comes to frequency holdings and network assets?

On the spectrum front, much has changed since RJio first appeared on the landscape in 2010, when it acquired a 2.3GHz license covering the entire country.

Two auctions later, RJio also controls 800MHz spectrum in 10 circles (service areas) and 1800MHz spectrum in 18.

By comparison, Bharti Airtel, India's biggest operator, holds 900MHz spectrum in 16 circles, 1800MHz airwaves in 22, 2.1GHz frequencies in 19 and 2.3GHz licenses in eight. Unlike RJio, Bharti Airtel does not own any spectrum in the 800MHz band. Its total spectrum holdings consist of 393.45MHz in paired frequency arrangements and 160MHz in unpaired. (See Idea, Airtel, Vodafone Splash Out on Indian Airwaves.)

As for Vodafone and Idea, neither player holds any spectrum in the 2.3GHz band, while Vodafone has 900MHz spectrum in 13 circles, 1800MHz spectrum in 22 circles and 2.1GHz airwaves in 14.

Idea, meanwhile, holds 1800MHz spectrum in all 22 circles as well as 900Mz spectrum in ten and 2.1GHZ spectrum in 12.

RJio, clearly, does not lag the big three when it comes to spectrum holdings, with enough airwaves to offer high-quality services to its subscribers. It plans to use a combination of TDD and FDD systems to offer 4G services to its subscribers.

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Another key component of RJio's strategy is fiber. The company "has already deployed a network of nearly 250,000 route kms [kilometers] of fiber optics, thereby creating a future-proof digital backbone across India. Over the next three years, RJio will more than double this fiber footprint by deploying fiber optics in the last mile," said Ambani during the recent annual general meeting of his Reliance Industries conglomerate.

That puts RJio a long way ahead of its rivals in this area. Bharti Airtel now maintains some 197,351 kilometers of fiber, while Vodafone claims to have laid about 140,000 kilometers. With just 93,400 kilometers of fiber, Idea plainly has the most catching up to do.

Where RJio currently lags is on towers, having deployed just 30,000 of its own, compared with 146,539 (including 48,825 3G towers) by Bharti Airtel, 157,000 (with 30,000 3G towers) by Vodafone and 142,658 (30,291 3G towers) by Idea.

RJio has signed infrastructure-sharing deals with players including Bharti Airtel, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL) , Reliance Communications Ltd. , Viom Networks and Tower Vision, but intends to ramp up its own towers' presence in the months ahead, with a view to covering 80% of India's population by the end of the year.

— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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