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Major US tech and investment firms including Facebook — and possibly Google — are investing a collective $15 billion in Indian tech firm Jio Platforms.
Jio Platforms saw explosive growth by luring Indians online for the first time with free or cheap mobile data and has now become India’s biggest telecoms firm with almost 400 million subscribers.
These Indians are swarming onto US apps like YouTube and Facebook for the first time, a phenomenon called the “Jio effect”, bringing user growth and revenue.
This flock of new users has had cultural side-effects, with the Indian music label T-Series overtaking the YouTube star PewDiePie in 2019 to become the YouTube channel with the most subscribers.
The “Jio effect” is little known outside India, but it’s already reshaped the way Silicon Valley does business.
The phenomenon is named after Jio, a mobile-network operator that launched in 2016 with extremely cheap data plans and successfully lured millions of Indians online for the first time.
Jio went from having zero customers to becoming the biggest mobile operator in the world, with nearly 400 million subscribers. To put this in context, Jio’s customer base is about as big as the entire US population.
Jio’s radical move was this: making 4G available to millions of Indians for free in 2016. It began charging nominal amounts for data in 2017 and, by then, the Indian appetite for internet content knew no bounds in part thanks to the availability of budget Android smartphones. Initially, Jio made no money, but it has now become profitable.
Jio is owned by tech company Jio Platforms and was founded by the Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani. Jio Platforms is itself a subsidiary of giant Indian conglomerate Reliance, of which Ambani is chairman and largest shareholder.
The firm’s ambitions have attracted interest from the major US tech firms, who see the “Jio effect” of new users and growth on their own businesses as a whole new user base discovers apps and content.
In 2020, Jio Platforms raised more than $15.2 billion from international backers including Facebook, which funnelled $5.7 billion into Jio Platforms in April, as well as Qualcomm, KKR, and many other investors.
Mukesh Ambani is, at the time of writing, the sixth richest person in the world with a net worth of $72.4 billion, making him richer than Google’s founders or Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
“Jio has changed the consumption habits for hundreds of millions of consumers,” Neil Shah, an analyst at Counterpoint Research, told Business Insider.
Shah estimates that thanks to Jio’s pricing, Indians have gone from consuming just 700 MB of data per month to 11 GB. This would let you watch about 30 episodes of “Game of Thrones.”
“You can get around 28 GB of data for just a couple of dollars,” Shah said. “And in that sense, once you have cheaper data and a smartphone, you’re going to consume more content.”
Unlike the West, Indian smartphone adoption is still growing in the double digits as people buy their first internet-connected devices. “More and more people are using smartphones as their first device, unlike developed markets where the PC is the first device,” Shah said.
This is significant. According to Pew Research, about 81% of Americans own a smartphone, meaning there isn’t much room to grow. The smartphone probably isn’t their first internet-connected device either.
Most consumers outside India won’t have really noticed what this means for the wider internet, but one incident really put the Jio effect on the map: the battle in 2019 between the Indian record label T-Series and the popular Swedish gaming vlogger PewDiePie to become the YouTube channel with the most subscribers.
T-Series is a long-established Indian record label, producing music videos in various Indian languages and highly successful blockbuster films, all directed at the home market. It’s historically been little-known outside India, except among the diaspora.
PewDiePie, by contrast, is a 29-year-old gaming vlogger and representative of a specific Western YouTube demographic — the self-referential, meme-loving, and occasionally offensive gamer.
Up until March 2018, PewDiePie, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, was by far the most popular YouTuber and the inspiration for hundreds of other smaller creators who riffed off his offbeat humor and occasionally tasteless pranks.
But the cumulative effect of millions of Indians discovering their favorite Bollywood music on YouTube kicked in, and T-Series became the most popular YouTube channel in May 2019. It has continued to cement its lead, with approximately 145 million subscribers to PewDiePie’s 105 million subscribers.
Because cheap bandwidth is essentially unlimited, Indians are treating YouTube as their de facto streaming service, according to Shah. With access to the internet for the first time, they’re turning to YouTube to find their favorite Indian-language songs.
“Most users have warmed up to YouTube to consume content, not just video, but music,” he said. “They are going to YouTube rather than Spotify. People like T-Series or Star Network are seeing growth in video as well as music content.”
Neeraj Kalyan, the president of T-Series, told Business Insider in 2019: “The recent growth of internet in India has increased the consumption of Indian content and, because of the decreased data costs, increased internet penetration, and higher bandwidth, this has been a real catalyst.
“In 2016, there was mobile internet available in tier one or tier two cities, but now it’s in tier three to tier five cities and villages, which had never experienced internet. So now the consumer is excited, and he’s experimenting with everything, and it’s resulted in an increase in consumption.”
It isn’t just YouTube. India is now producing its own Silicon Valley-style internet giants, such as the retail firm Flipkart — majority acquired by Walmart for $16 billion — the online supermarket Grofers, the payment firm Paytm, and the Uber rival Ola.
Silicon Valley is also feeling the Jio effect.
Facebook, for example, began talking about the Jio effect indirectly in 2016.
The firm first mentioned the effect of cheap data in India on its 2016 third-quarter earnings call when chief financial officer Dave Wehner said: “We’re seeing the introduction of low price data plans in markets like India and Mexico contributing [to user growth].”
Facebook would continue to talk about the effect of India’s “promotional free data plans” on its user growth in every subsequent earnings call for a year. And the firm has described India as its biggest growth market in every quarter since the third quarter of 2016, according to call transcripts analyzed by Business Insider.
Google is also playing nice with Jio. CEO Sundar Pichai attended the wedding of Akash Ambani, the son of Reliance Chairman Mukesh Ambani, earlier this year.
And Google has been flagging the massive growth in Indian Android users since early 2017, not long after the launch of Reliance Jio.
Google said there were more than 300 million new Android users from markets such as India and Brazil. At the beginning of 2019, the firm said India was the fastest-growing market for YouTube. Its companion app, YouTube Music, had more than 15 million downloads.
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