How Reliance Jio drove data usage, erased the line between content and carriage, and is making life hell for India’s news media

Reliance Jio used prime minister Narendra Modi as brand ambassador on its launch day.
This coincided with an unctuous interview on Reliance-owned Network18 on the same day.

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In this, the second and concluding part of a two-part excerpt from his new book Freedom, Civility, Commerce, journalist and academic Sukumar Muralidharan turns his eye on the mysterious entry of Reliance Jio, and what it portends for the media.

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By SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN

Statistics may often have no more than transient utility in the rapidly changing scenario of the modern media, but they could be used provisionally to gauge which way the winds are blowing.

In 2011, as Robin Jeffrey and Assa Doron set about researching their book Cellphone Nation, India had 100 million newspaper copies coming to market every day, and an estimated 600 million cellphones in use all over the country. These figures were regarded as portending momentous change, though the future relevance of the newspaper as a medium still seemed assured.

By 2017, the figures had not changed very much in respect of newspaper numbers, though there were growing doubts over how much of it was substantive and how much mere artifice to keep advertisers interested. Cellphone users – or at least the number of active SIM cards, which is its closest proxy – had topped one billion by then.

In September 2016 a new entity came into India’s universe of information transactions, with a splashy celebrity launch in the western metropolis of Mumbai. Its entry into the telecom and internet space was itself an end-run around all regulatory norms, a manoeuvre carried out while regulatory agencies winked or looked elsewhere.

In 2010, a little known entity, Infotel Broadband Services Ltd. (ISBL), had been awarded a number of licences for data services incorporating “fourth generation” or 4G specifications and technology. Since licences came bundled up with spectrum, this award earned for the novitiate in the field, the right to colonise a wide swathe of the electromagnetic spectrum across the country.

A few days later, Reliance Industries Ltd – India’s largest business conglomerate with interests in energy, infrastructure, petrochemicals and various stated and unstated stakes in media houses – announced that it had acquired a 95 per cent stake in ISBL.

Soon afterwards, Reliance announced the launch of a high-speed data service under the brand name Jio. Capitalising on the concept of a universal service licence announced in 2013, it expanded the service to include voice calls.

In 2014, the official watchdog over public finances, the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India (CAG), sent a draft report to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), urging cancellation of the licence issued IBSL.

The CAG found after an audit of the process, that the “DoT failed to recognise the tell-tale sign of rigging of the auction right from (the) beginning”. Rather implausibly, a small and obscure company was awarded an all-India licence on the basis of a licence fee bid that was over 5,000 times its net worth.

In January 2016, an advocacy group, the Centre for Public Interest Litigation, filed a petition in the Supreme Court demanding revocation of the 4G services licence granted Jio. In April that year, the Supreme Court dismissed the petition on grounds that it would not intervene in policy matters unless there was evidence of “blatant” malafide.

With all impediments removed, the Jio 4G service launched in September 2016 with a variety of freebies on offer. Other telecom and internet service providers were rattled though their feeble protests to the regulatory authority went unheeded. Already vulnerable to mounting debt servicing obligations, India’s telecom operators suddenly had a new threat to worry about.

In its June 2017 edition, the Ericsson Mobility Report which has become something of a standard reference source for trends in the telecom and internet domains, observed that total global “traffic in mobile networks increased by 70 percent” between the end of the first quarter of 2016 and the corresponding point of time the following year.

“Part of this increase”, it said, “was due to one Indian operator’s introductory LTE (long-term evolution, which is another term for 4G) offer that included free data traffic”. Mobile subscriptions had registered a 4 per cent growth over the year.

In terms of the net additions during the relevant quarter of 2017, India had the largest number at 43 million, with China second at 24 million. “The strong subscription growth in India”, the report concluded, “was mainly due to an attractive LTE ‘welcome offer’ by one operator, with free voice and data”.

Globally, smartphones accounted for 80 per cent of the total number of new mobile connections in the quarter, a figure expected to increase rapidly. Data traffic over mobile networks in 2017 grew 70 per cent globally, with video signals accounting for over 50 per cent of total traffic. Even if not part of the report, it is a safe inference – without entering into the moral dimension – that pornography was a large part of video traffic over the mobile network.

Jio’s entry in India had contributed to a dramatic growth in data traffic. Though the report uses a broader geographic category (India, Nepal and Bhutan), the vast part of the increase in data traffic in this region between 2016 to 2017 – 0.3 exabytes per month to 1.0 – could be attributed to India. Data usage per smartphone within this geographic region increased from 1.5 to 4.1 gigabytes per month over the year. (Megabyte refers to one million bytes; exabyte refers to one billion megabytes)

 Aside from the disruptive effect that Jio’s arrival had on other telecom and internet service providers, it signalled a possible era of consolidation, when older and honoured lines of demarcation between media content and carriage for instance, would be discarded in favour of the relentless concentration of market power.

The principle of separation was never very scrupulously observed, but with its stated and unstated investments in India’s crisis-ridden media sector, there emerged a very real threat of evisceration from Reliance’s entry into the mobile data domain.

India’s trajectory is a few steps behind the global trend in some respects, though the magnitude of the transition, because of the sheer size of the country, has attracted global attention.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) has since 2011 been carrying out an annual survey of the digital media with substantial samples drawn from a large number of countries. India is yet to figure in this annual survey, partly because the institute has not found an in-country partner. But the global trends it highlights are clearly applicable in India and the evidence comes both anecdotally and from assembling information from a diversity of sources.

In its survey published October 2017, the RISJ used a sample of 70,000 from 36 different markets across five continents, with internet penetration ranging from 50 to 98 per cent of the population. Though there were variations in these markets with their own distinct demographics, the directions of change discerned across them allowed for certain robust generalisations.

There was firstly, an increasing dependence on the smart phone for accessing news and information. “Distributed discovery” was becoming more important, with particular news sources being less likely to be remembered than the platform on which they were discovered.

Beyond these platforms, the growth of “private” messaging apps such as WhatsApp in news discovery was growing. And with this multitude of sources and choices, the vital attribute of “trust” was eroding. As the RISJ study concluded “confidence in both social media and news (was) low”.

The ambience was just right for power, rather than a shared belief in a universe of facts, to become arbiter of what gets to be seen, heard and read. And in a world of growing resentments and anxieties, facts became what you chose to make them, which fed the erosion of trust in established institutions and encouraged a spirit of vigilantism and summary justice in dealing with economic and social insecurities.

Concluded

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Excerpted from Freedom, Civility, Commerce published by Three Essays Collective, pp 502, Rs 950, with the permission of the author)

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(Sukumar Muralidharan teaches at the school of journalism, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat. In a career spanning three decades in the print media, he has worked on areas of science and technology, business, politics and international affairs. Follow him on Twitter @skumar_md)

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