It’s been a long day in the office. On your commute home, using your phone, you set the temperature and lighting for the dining room right, and order dinner to be delivered. Then you transfer money to the driver’s e-wallet and ask him to top up the car’s fuel tank. Finally, you check the status of your flight the next morning, while scheduling a visit from the plumber next week. At home, you tip the food delivery executive on the app.
Next, you get an alert that the driver has made an unscheduled stop on the way home. The driver returns, and explains he had to answer a video call from his daughter, who lives in another city. Elsewhere, the delivery executive pays the school fees of his younger sister hundreds of kilometres away, while you ask Alexa to wake you up at 5 a.m. the next morning.
There’s an invisible, silent power that makes all these activities possible, and it’s called data—packets of information stored and exchanged across interconnected computing devices, measured in bits and bytes. Some call data the new oil, because they believe that this will fuel future economic growth, much like oil did over the past several decades
But while oil prices are volatile, the cost of high-speed data is declining fast and steady. Even until a couple of years ago in India, high-speed data—be it via 4G mobile telephony or wired broadband—was the exclusive privilege of a few. Not anymore. This democratic access to high-speed, low-cost data is what is unleashing the next wave of economic growth in the country. The stakeholders who are benefitting from this are a diverse set.
On one hand, there are the providers or companies making data available to users and enjoying a steady increase in the volume of consumption. On the other hand, there is a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem comprising large and small companies steeped in technology, which are devising products and services to address the daily needs and pain points of common Indians. These include e-commerce firms, online video platforms, financial technology (fintech) firms and healthcare startups, to name a few.
And, of course, the last and most important link in this chain is the end-consumer herself—empowered with a smartphone and an unending supply of data that doesn’t burn a hole in her pocket and leaves her with enough to spend elsewhere. According to a report titled ‘Unlocking Digital for Bharat’, published jointly by Bain & Co., Google, and Omidyar Network, India had 390 million active Internet users in 2017, the second highest user base in the world after China with 733 million. Even at this level, Internet penetration in India stood at a mere 28%, compared to 53% in China, signalling the future runway for growth available in the country. The Internet user base in the country has doubled since 2014, and the same report suggests that the velocity of addition of Internet users in India, at 40 million per year, is the highest in the world.
With a population of 1.34 billion people making it one of the largest markets in the world, a data revolution in India was always around the corner, provided it was made affordable. But every revolution needs a catalyst and that came in September 2016 when Reliance Jio Infocomm (Jio), the broadband wireless and digital services company promoted by Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL), launched commercial operations. Jio, the world’s first all-IP (Internet protocol) network, rewrote the rules of India’s telecommunications industry overnight by offering free voice calls and high-speed data to users at rock-bottom prices; and followed it up with a wide array of video and audio content and services.
RIL chairman Mukesh Ambani may have sparked India’s data revolution after his daughter complained of poor Internet connectivity many years ago, but he is also in the best position to dominate India’s digital revolution. Not only does he have a wide network of offline stores through Reliance Retail, he also has significant stakes in content companies which are speeding on the data highway Jio provides—Network18, Saavn, Eros Entertainment, and Balaji Telefilms, to name a few.
Jio’s motto is simple: We are determined to connect everyone and everything—always at the highest quality and the most affordable price,” Ambani, 61, said at his company’s 41st annual general meeting in July. And Jio appears well on its way. According to Jio’s latest investor presentation, the company has already notched up 252.3 million subscribers. Jio subscribers consume 11 GB of data per capita per month, including 4.1 billion hours of video consumption, the presentation says.
In another investor presentation, Jio claimed to have a 72% share of 4G data traffic in the April-June 2018 quarter, with an average download speed of 20.6 Mbps. And with RIL buying controlling stakes in Hathway Cable and DEN Networks, Ambani’s fibre-to-home strategy has got a big boost in terms of last-mile connectivity.
The Jio effect has been profound. From a global rank of 150 in terms of mobile broadband connectivity before Jio’s launch, India now ranks No. 1, reports say; the country’s average monthly mobile data usage of 8 GB per user is the highest in the world and much ahead of developed countries like the U.S., the U.K., South Korea, and China, according to the report by Bain, Google, and Omidyar. The growth in consumption has had a direct correlation with the drop in prices. Before Jio, the average price per GB of data was $4.40 in 2014. It fell to as low as $0.17 in 2017, the report says.
“With Jio, we have built a digital connectivity platform of unparalleled capacity and nationwide reach. Digital platforms have become the new age factories and service providers. These new hyper growth engines of value creation are fired by the combination of digital connectivity, computing power and software,” Ambani said in July.
The unprecedented access to customers in far-flung areas that such digital connectivity offers has seen the emergence of new business models, which are rapidly scaling up. For instance, myUpchar is a Delhi-based healthcare startup that allows users to access medically certified health and wellness information in vernacular languages and connects them with doctors for virtual consultations. The startup— which raised $5 million from Nexus Venture Partners, Omidyar Network, and Shunwei Capital in August—seeks to expand its base in tier II and tier III cities, where digital literacy isn’t high, using techniques such as voice-based search for information, and virtual reality and augmented reality for more meaningful consultation with doctors.
“We started around the same time as when Jio was launched and have managed to grow to 11 million users in less than two years,” says Rajat Garg, co-founder and CEO of myUpchar. “It just goes to show that there is a large pool of people out there who are looking for this kind of information and we can connect with them thanks to cheap smartphones and data connections.”
In fact, a movement to connect Indians who live in the country’s smaller towns and cities, and who may not be proficient in using English as a medium of navigating the Internet, appears to be under way.
“The Jio effect has democratised data, making us the cheapest mobile data market in the world. I tend to think of it as the basic essentials of life—roti (food), kapda (clothing) and makaan (housing)—have been extended to mobile,” says Umang Bedi, president of news aggregator and publishing platform Dailyhunt and former head of Facebook in India. Dailyhunt offers news in 17 Indian languages to a user base of 145 million people. Goldman Sachs sees Dailyhunt as a potential “billion dollar baby” among the new Indian startups. It has already raised at least $80 million from various investors including Sequoia Capital, Omidyar, and U.S. hedge fund Falcon Edge.
The report by Bain, Google, and Omidyar expects over 500 million Indians to either start using the Internet for the first time or make an online transaction for the first time and pegs the economic opportunity from these potential consumers at $50 billion.
This also presents a unique opportunity for venture capitalists like Omidyar Network, which has focussed its impact investment strategy towards businesses that seek to connect the “next half billion Indians”. Roopa Kudva, partner and managing director of Omidyar Network India, says that the last 18 months have completely changed the opportunity for impact investments in India. “With significant reduction in data costs and easier access, a whole new market has opened up with the flick of a button,” Kudva says. “This has also led to a wave of new purpose-driven entrepreneurs emerging with innovative solutions to address challenges specific to the next half billion users.”
It isn’t just the new kids on the block who are obsessed about the next half billion. In doing so, they also seek to emulate the success already tasted by some foreign and home-grown biggies.
Three areas in which India’s digital push has shown clear results already are e-commerce, fintech, and online video streaming. According to a joint report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India and market research firm Kantar IMRB, the market for digital commerce in India grew at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 34% between 2011 and 2017 to `2.04 lakh crore.
E-commerce platform Amazon, led by the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos, entered India in 2013 and has committed as much as $5 billion to capture a significant share of one of the world’s fastest growing consumer Internet markets. According to a Citi Research report, Amazon in India is estimated to be worth $16 billion. The May 2017 report stated that Amazon had achieved a gross merchandise value (GMV), or total value of goods sold, of $5 billion in India, second to home-grown Flipkart, which had a GMV of $7.5 billion.
One of the ways that Amazon tries to stay relevant to Indian consumers is by adapting its offerings to suit network-related ground realities. Kishore Thota, director, customer experience and marketing at Amazon India, says that while data consumption has increased, the quality of the network isn’t uniformly good. “This has led us to focus on seeing how the Amazon shopping experience evolves through measures such as a lightweight app, which can be downloaded within a minute, and predictive algorithms using cache-based browsing history that can help bring forward product recommendations tailored for individual customers.
While Bezos may be looking to make good in India after losing out to local competition in China, the Chinese are determined to make life difficult for him here as well. One way of doing that is by backing one of India’s most well-known digital entrepreneurs, Vijay Shekhar Sharma. The founder and chief executive officer of Paytm, Sharma has been seamlessly straddling the interconnected worlds of digital payments and e-commerce.
Founded in 2010, Paytm—backed by China’s Alibaba Group led by Jack Ma—started off as a digital wallet before metamorphosing into the country’s largest digital payments firm, with a payments bank licence and an online marketplace called Paytm Mall. In August, Warren Buffet-led Berkshire Hathaway invested in Paytm, at a reported valuation of $10 billion-12 billion.
A recent IDFC Securities Research report pegs mobile wallets to be a $120 billion industry in the next five years, digital payments to be a $500 billion opportunity, and fintech-based financing to be a $1 trillion business over the same period. “Everybody who is interested in India, whether it is the startups or technology companies, is here because of the customer base out there. I think some of us need that customer base as a primary reason for our existence,” Sharma tells Fortune India. “I think 2020 will be the moment when the missiles will be out. By that time the companies with deep pockets, a scaleable moat, and ability to capture the consumer’s imagination would be clear.”
When it comes to capturing the consumer’s imagination, few have done it better than the so-called OTT (over-the-top) platforms, which stream a wide array of global and local video content. Global players like Amazon Prime and Netflix, and their Indian counterparts like Hotstar, Zee5, Sony Liv, and ALT Balaji, are all currently fighting it out for domination in this space and aggressively spending on developing content and technology to woo millennials and Gen Z users, who prefer consuming content online than on linear television. “We expect explosive growth in digital video consumption over the next five years, led by a fast evolving ecosystem, consumption trends and massive investments by global and local players,” says a report by Kotak Institutional Equities.
Hotstar is the current leader in India’s OTT space with 150 million monthly users. Zee5, which was launched in February, has quickly risen to the second position with 41 million monthly active users. “What you can do for a consumer in the digital world in terms of personalisation and segmentation is far different from what you can do for a large audience cluster being catered to by regular television or radio broadcast,” says Tarun Katial, chief executive officer of Zee5. “No doubt access to data has allowed customers to tap into OTT content. But one of the reasons why even those who could afford expensive 3G or 4G data earlier didn’t use enough of it was because there wasn’t enough good content available. So data is driving video and video is driving data.”
Last but not the least, the boom in data consumption has come as a boon for those who manufacture the digital highway on which the data rides. The most common of these carriers is the ubiquitous optic fibre cable (OFC). Sterlite Tech, a part of the $11.5 billion Vedanta group led by Anil Agarwal, is the largest manufacturer of OFC in India and has a 7% share of the global market.
Ankit Agarwal, CEO, telecom products at Sterlite Tech, says that the race towards 5G and an impetus to connecting India’s smallest towns and villages with OFC under government programmes such as Bharat Net spells good news for businesses such as his. “For us, demand is not only coming from the telecom operators, but others like Internet service providers, government projects and hyper-scale businesses such as Amazon and Facebook who are all setting up their own data centres to comply with data privacy and localisation norms,” says Agarwal, who is Vedanta chairman Anil Agarwal’s nephew.
Roughly half of Sterlite Tech’s revenue of ₹3,205 crore in 2017-18 came from India, even as overall turnover grew by 23.5% year-on-year. The company is investing ₹1,500 crore to ramp up its OFC production capacity to cater to anticipated growth in demand with an acceleration towards deployment of 5G technology.
From 3G to 4G to 5G, the rate at which technology is evolving and enabling data to be harnessed in different ways can be quite overwhelming at times. While many companies are using such data to design customer-facing products and services, there are others who can make the value chain business model redundant by providing a platform for the next generation of sellers. Whichever way one looks at it, there is little choice but to keep pace with evolution. After all, failure to do so may well mean extinction.
Additional reporting by Arnika Thakur and Abhik Sen.
(This story was originally published in the November 2018 issue of the magazine)