Jio's 5G SA network has yet to significantly lift ARPU, but the company is counting on the new network delivering both greater operational efficiencies and AI-driven services.
Jio builds 5G SA momentum with FWA and AI platform for enterprises
5G standalone (SA) networks and the network slicing services they support are often seen as enterprise plays. India's Jio, however, which built one of the world's largest 5G SA networks at breakneck speed during 2023, is making a big push to sign up consumers. One of its first services, 5G Air Fiber FWA, for example, uses a dedicated consumer slice to deliver residential broadband services across India.
So far, the company, which has a total of 470.9 million customers, has migrated approximately 90 million subscribers to its 5G SA network, according to its latest results statement. At the same time, its ARPU increased 2.0% year-on-year to reach ₹ 181.7 (2.19 USD), while total data and voice traffic increased 31.5% and 7.9% year-on-year, respectively.
Like its competitor Airtel, which has built a 5G non-standalone (NSA) network, Jio is pricing 5G services to attract take-up. Akshaya Moondra, CEO of India’s Vodafone Idea (Vi), called out these pricing strategies this week during the company’s earnings call for the quarter ending 31 December 2023.
“Significant investments have been made on the 5G front… The challenge we see today is that there is no monetization happening. In fact, the way 5G is priced today [it] is actually resulting in discounting of 4G also… Currently, since it is free, the adoption is not clearly representative of what the customer is willing to pay for the higher consumption,” he said.
Financially strapped Vi has not yet launched 5G and is working to raise additional funding so that it can get its next-gen network up and running. “However, by the time we launch it, we will have some clarity on monetization, which we believe is around the corner …. The industry does need to see some movement towards monetization,” he said.
Jio banks on AI, automation to power new services
Jio also has its sights on future monetization and expects to leverage its investments in AI platforms as it expands 5G SA offerings beyond consumer services and FWA for enterprises.
“Enterprises are open to the concept of a sliced network tenant for mission critical services as well as services needing enhanced levels of security,” according to Aayush Bhatnagar, Vice President, Jio, in emailed responses to questions.
Bhatnagar also sees 5G SA’s capabilities of high throughput (eMBB) and low latency (uRLLC) combining with AI to create demand for edge services.
“These two ingredients enable edge computing and extend the reach of AI at the edge to co-create new services with enterprise partners,” noted Bhatnagar. “In this regard, 5G SA coupled with AI/ML provide a distinctive edge for enterprise 5G services.”
AI is an important development area for Jio Platforms, which recently unveiled Jio Brain. An application agnostic AI platform for telcos and enterprises, Jio Brain sets out to combine the speed, latency and massive connectivity of 5G with machine learning's (ML) data processing, analysis and automation capabilities. The aim is to "help create new 5G services, transform enterprises, optimize networks, as well as set the stage for 6G development - where ML is a key capability." And Jio's parent company, Reliance industries has partnered with Nvidia to build supercomputing infrastructure for AI. According to a statement from Nvidia: "Reliance will create AI applications and services for their 450 million Jio customers and provide energy-efficient AI infrastructure to scientists, developers and startups across India."
In the immediate term, the operational benefits of network automation are another key element of Jio’s 5G SA business model. Jio uses network and OSS/BSS technology platforms from Jio Platforms Limited to “enable Jio to automate their network and integrate new service capabilities rapidly - leading to unique differentiation,” stated Bhatnagar.
Bhatnagar also claims Jio is the only network in the world using AI capabilities at a large scale in its network operations, capacity planning and RF network optimization. All of which made rapid network roll-out possible.
“Due to the automation platforms, Jio was able to deploy the 5G SA core in a matter of 60 days and create capacities to accommodate millions of users,” according to Bhatnagar.
In addition, automation extends beyond the 5G SA core network into other domains such as 5G radios, IP and transport networks. “This has enabled Jio to launch network slicing enabled services such as "Air Fiber" by creating network slices across its network in an end-to-end manner.”
Nonetheless, Jio remains something of an outlier on the global stage, where 5G SA network roll out has been slow. This in part reflects doubts about demand for services warranting the investment, especially for those operators, unlike Jio, that have already spent on building 5G non-standalone networks.
Indeed, the GSA reported in late January that around 46 operators in 27 countries and territories are understood to have launched or deployed public 5G SA networks, one of which is a soft launch. It says a further 22 operators “have been catalogued as deploying or piloting 5G SA for public networks, and 49 as planning to deploy or evaluating, testing or trialing the technology.”