Inside Jio's new plan to poach 2G subscribers from Airtel, Vodafone IdeaNEW DELHI: A fierce fight is set to break out among telcos for some 350 million feature phone users, with Reliance Jio close to finalising partnerships with Indian and Chinese handset makers to launch subsidised SIM-locked smartphones bundled with 4G data, voice, and own content services, people familiar with the matter said. They added that telco has already inked its first such tie-up with China’s iTel brand for launching 4G smartphones likely in the Rs 3,000-4,000 range.

The launches—which will come in the lead up to the affordable 4G smartphones to be developed under the Jio-Google partnership—is aimed at attracting a bulk of the roughly 350 million featurephone subscribers, most of whom are on the networks of rivals Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, especially in semi-urban and rural areas, people familiar with the matter said.

As reported by ET in its September 12 edition, No. 2 carrier Airtel, with some 108 million 2G/3G users of its 280-million subscriber base, is also in talks with handset makers for similar subsidized SIM-locked phones in the Rs 2,000-2,500 range. Industry executives say Vodafone Idea, with the most number of 2G/3G users at a 138 million, may have little choice but to follow suit with similar bundling tie-ups to protect its base. The cash strapped telco has already lost over 120 million users since the merger in August 2018, to end the June quarter with under 280 million subscribers.

“While the iTel partnership is done. Jio is also working on forming similar partnerships with other Indian handset brands for low-end 4G smartphones. This is a part of their 2G-mukt Bharat project,” a top executive with an Indian handset brand told ET, on the condition of anonymity.

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Jio and iTel didn’t respond to ET’s queries.

“Airtel and Vodafone Idea have big 2G subscriber bases, which they would like to maintain and gradually shift to 4G. If Jio pips them in launching lucrative 4G offerings, then it will be crucial for them to offer an equivalent or a better offer,” one of the people said.

Navkendar Singh, research director at IDC India, said that Jio will have to work on total cost, which should not be more than Rs 2,500 after the subsidy, and should focus on an end-to-end experience as merely subsidising the device will not really yield results.

“In addition to bundling of data and Jio’s own services, total cost of ownership needs to come down for customers along with after sales support. The messaging has to be fixed around use cases like education, payments and healthcare as well,” said Singh.

Tarun Pathak, associate director at Counterpoint Research, added that local handset makers and key feature phone players have a strong know-how of the device experience needed for this segment, and can cash in by tying up with telcos.

Another top executive at an Indian handset brand, which acts as a contract manufacturer for other companies, said that Jio has also begun talks with Indian handset players and global contract manufacturers for a low-cost 4G smartphone—likely to be Jio-branded—to be developed in partnership with internet major Google.

Currently, for this device, Jio is gathering information about capacity of vendors and sourcing of equipment, another senior executive with a contract manufacturer said. Jio’s plan is to place orders for some 10 million smartphones initially, but the timing is all dependent on the regulatory approvals.

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US contract manufacturer Flex had made 4G feature phones, Jio Phone and Jio Phone 2 previously and people familiar with the matter said it could be roped in again for the Jio-branded Android smartphones, but nothing has been finalised yet. Indian listed contract manufacturer Dixon Technologies, people said, is in talks with Jio, for this device.

Flex and Dixon didn’t respond to ET’s emailed queries.

“But the Google-Jio partnership needs regulatory approvals first… Hence, it (Jio) is more focused on bundling with brands currently,” the executive said.

An executive with Reliance Jio said that Jio-branded smartphone development is taking its own time as supply chain issues are being identified and will accordingly be ironed out. “It is likely that devices will only hit the market early next year since OS optimization and making the phone ready for Indian needs will take time.”

Jio’s plan is to place orders for 10 million smartphones initially as and when it is ready with its business plan and regulatory approvals for its Google partnership, sources said, adding that recent reports of 100 million smartphones is incorrect.

Pathak said that Indian feature phone users (~350 million) present a massive opportunity for Jio. “Local handset players and key feature phone players have a strong know-how of the device experience of this segment and these players can potentially cash in by partnering with telecom operators, especially Jio,” he said.

Pathak, however, said that it will be difficult to target he migration from 2G to 4G entry level smartphone users, ecosystem level partnerships will be required for Jio as it will be difficult to target the segment on its own.This is mainly because there is an absence of a good entry level (sub $50) device in the market and very few OEMs have the expertise to make a device that provide a good overall experience as managing the BoM ( Bills of Material) in this segment is tricky.

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“Secondly, users upgrading now to smartphones requires a lot of upskilling as compared to their previous feature phones -Language barriers, data charges, form factor are some of the key challenges which new users have. Thirdly, Jio will need to customize the overall software experience to make a dent in this segment which involves apps and OS experience,” Pathak said.

“As a result of these three factors sub $50 smartphone segment never kicked off in India but a good price in this segment can actually attract some of the immediate upper tier price band users($50-$100) to downgrade in an attempt to save during this pandemic,” he added.



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