Mukesh Ambani, chairman and managing director, Reliance Industries Limited

During the past two and a half decades, the telecom sector has not only revolutionised the way people communicate, it has also changed the trajectory of India’s economic growth and development. At a recent online event, Desh Ki Digital Udaan, organised by the Department of Telecommunications and the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the first mobile call made in India, industry leaders Mukesh Ambani, chairman and managing director, Reliance Industries Limited. Edited excerpts from his address…

India truly took a big flight into the bright future with the advent of mobile telephony in 1995. There are rare moments in history when fiction becomes fact, constraint makes way for freedom, and necessity becomes the proverbial mother of invention. The birth of fixed line telephony was one of them. However, it provided only partial freedom of communication. It did not completely remove the constraint of distance; people needed to communicate from anywhere to anywhere 24×7. It was both their need and their dream. Technology answered their dream and entrepreneurship satisfied this need.

The transition from landline to mobile was undoubtedly a revolutionary disruption. However, in the past 25 years, mobile telephony itself has undergone many disruptive and transformational changes. I can count four fundamental ways in which mobile telephony has changed and, in turn, has changed India. First, mobility has become affordable beyond all expectations. In 1995, the per minute cost of a call from a cell phone was Rs 24 – Rs 16 for the caller and Rs 8 for the called. Now, voice calls are free, without any time limit. Second, because mobility became affordable it also became democratic as it ceased to be a rich man’s monopoly. Indeed, no other technological tool in human history has erased the rich-poor divide the way mobile telephony has. Third, from being unifunctional, cell phones have become multifunctional because of the mobile internet. The combination of the connectivity revolution and the computation revolution has opened the floodgates of human creativity. Fourth, and most important, with data becoming both abundant and affordable, mobile telephony has become a catalyst for the enrichment and empowerment of common Indians in ways that were unthinkable 25 years ago.

People are now accessing and exchanging knowledge on their phones. They are receiving news on their phones. They are watching and making videos on their phones. They are buying and selling goods and services on their phones. They are making payments on their phones. They are working from home and studying from home on their phones. They are participating in virtual meetings.

The ongoing Covid-19 lockdown has provided the best examples of how mobile phones are empowering people. They have kept the nation connected, and they have kept the wheels of the economy running.

Jio has made, and is continuing to make, a significant contribution to India’s digital udaan (flight). In less than four years since its inception, Jio has brought the fruits of the digital revolution to the largest number of mobile users in India. Jio has become the trailblazer in affordability, quality and functional versatility.

We are now rolling out our vision of digital platforms and partnerships. This will provide the most advanced technological tools of empowerment to millions of our farmers, small merchants, consumers, small and medium enterprises, students, teachers, healthcare workers and innovators. This will also create new and attractive employment and livelihood opportunities for our talented youth.

As we take legitimate pride in the achievements of mobility in the past 25 years, this is also an occasion for us to look at the obstacles that have prevented Indian consumers and Indian society from fully benefiting from the digital revolution. Here, I specifically refer to the fact that India still has 300 million mobile subscribers trapped in the 2G era. Their feature phones keep them excluded from even the basic uses of the internet at a time when both India and the rest of the world are standing at the doorstep of 5G telephony. I think the necessary policy steps should be taken with utmost urgency to make 2G a part of history.

The next 25 years will bring even more breathtaking changes in mobility. Twenty-five years ago, India was behind the developed world in mobility. Now the time has come for India to be ahead of the rest of the world in key areas of technology. We all need to work together to realise this vision and mission.