Ambani's Reliance Jio top buyer in India's $19 billion 5G sale

Telecom operators in India agreed to spend $19 billion in the government auction for the 5G airwaves, New Delhi said Monday, the highest from them in any spectrum sale, as the world’s second largest wireless market readies the rollout of improved and faster voice and data speeds.

Reliance Jio Infocomm, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea competed with one another for seven days and made the majority of the acquisitions, purchasing 71% of all offered spectrum, which the government said exceeded its expectations.

Tycoon Mukesh Ambani's Jio, which counts Google and Meta among its backers, was the most aggressive participant, with spendings of $11.13 billion, Telecom Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said Monday in a press briefing. Google-backed Airtel made spendings worth $5.44 billion, whereas Vodafone Idea, the Indian unit of British giant Vodafone Group and billionaire Kumar Mangalam’s Idea Cellular, made spendings of worth $2.37 billion.

Even as India is the second largest wireless market, it has been slow in comparison to several markets in setting up the networks for the rollout of 5G technology, which carriers across the globe say offers significantly faster data speeds and could play an instrumental role in applications around innovations in autonomous mobility and telemedicines and robotics among other industries.

The lure of faster speeds is likely to help telecom operators struggling with declining revenues in recent years persuade consumers to pay more for data, analysts say.

“We have always believed that India will become a leading economic power in the world by adopting the power of breakthrough technologies. This was the vision and conviction that gave birth to Jio. The speed, scale and societal impact of Jio’s 4G rollout is unmatched anywhere in the world. Now, with a bigger ambition and stronger resolve, Jio is set to lead India’s march into the 5G era," said Akash Ambani, chairman of Reliance Jio Infocomm, in a statement. "Jio is committed to offering world-class, affordable 5G and 5G-enabled services. We will provide services, platforms and solutions that will accelerate India’s digital revolution, especially in crucial sectors like Education, Healthcare, Agriculture, Manufacturing and e-Governance."

Reliance's aggressive spendings demonstrate its growing digital ambitions. The oils giant, which launched its telecom operation six years ago, has established itself as the largest wireless carrier in India, with more than 420 million subscribers. By offering cutrate data prices, Jio won subscribers and forced the industry to lower tariffs, kickstarting an era that has significantly driven the mobile data consumption in the South Asian nation and benefited countless startups.

“The Hail Mary moment there was Reliance Jio’s arrival in the market. It democratized data and smartphones at a scale that we have not seen in countries other than China,” said Karthik Reddy, a VC at early-stage-focused venture firm Blume Ventures, in an earlier TechCrunch interview.

New Delhi said Reliance acquired spectrum in 700MHz, 800MHz, 1800MHz, 3300MHz and 26GHz bands, Bharti Airtel acquired spectrum in 900MHz, 1800MHz, 2100MHz, 3300MHz and 26GHz frequency bands, and Vodafone Idea cornered spectrum in 3300MHz and 26GHz bands.

India said it expects the rollout of 5G networks to begin from October and hopes that residents in several key cities will be able to experience the faster internet by the end of the year. Vaishnaw declared the auction for 5G airwaves a success for India and said the government is working to complete the allocation by August 10.

Anticipating the rollout, smartphone makers have been selling in India for nearly two years handsets capable of supporting 5G networks. In fact, they have shipped more than 50 million 5G-compatible smartphones in the South Asian market, a fifth of which arrived in the quarter that ended in June this year, according to research firm Counterpoint. India is also the world's second largest smartphone market and one of the fastest growing.

"This spectrum acquisition at the latest auction has been a part of a deliberate strategy to buy the best spectrum assets at a substantially lower relative cost compared to our competition. This will allow us to raise the bar on innovation and address the emerging needs of every discerning customer who demands the best experience in India," said Gopal Vittal, chief executive of Bharti Airtel, in a statement.

India's richest man Gautam Adani's firm also made its debut in the auction, but kept its interest largely limited with spendings of just $26.8 million. The company said last month that it was participating in the spectrum auction to provide private network solutions with enhanced cyber security in "the airport, ports & logistics, power generation, transmission, distribution, and various manufacturing operations."