Billionaires Spar Over Data Speed in New India Wireless Battle

  • Reliance Jio says Airtel’s claim of fastest network misleading
  • Airtel says Ookla stands by data showing it to be the fastest

Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, rattled mobile-phone operators by offering free calls for life on his new $25 billion telecom network. His Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd. is now fighting a battle on data speeds in a bid to dominate the world’s fastest growing smartphone market.

Jio is disputing claims by billionaire Sunil Bharti Mittal’s Bharti Airtel Ltd. that the nation’s largest carrier also has “India’s Fastest Mobile Network.” Jio will initiate “actions as we deem fit at appropriate forums,” it said in an emailed statement on Tuesday. Airtel said its broadband speed findings are based on data from Seattle-based Ookla LLC.

The feud showcases the struggle to lure customers in the world’s second-largest mobile phone market where intense competition prompted Jio to offer completely free services until March 31 and Vodafone Group Plc to combine its Indian unit with Idea Cellular Ltd. With voice revenues plunging and with 92 percent of the country accessing the Internet through their mobile phones, broadband speeds will be crucial as Prime Minister Narendra Modi tries to get more Indians online through his “Digital India” program.

“The Internet is going to be India’s backbone as more and more users come online through mobile phones,” said Satish Meena, a New Delhi-based analyst at Forrester Research India Pvt. “Every user wants to be on the speediest, most reliable and cost effective network."

Ambani’s Jio has a 4G only network, with voice also being transmitted via the data network using Voice over Long Term Evolution technology, similar to that used by Skype.

“We are rather amused by the allegations being made against our campaign,” said Rajiv Mathrani, chief brand officer at Bharti Airtel in an emailed statement. “We believe that this is a deliberate attempt to malign our brand and misguide customers through a campaign of misinformation.”

To read about the impact of competition in India’s wireless market, click here

Jio, which has crossed 100 million subscribers since it began commercial operations in September, stormed into India’s crowded mobile operator market by offering free services for a period that was extended until March 31. Rival operators were forced to slash prices to match Jio, in order to retain subscribers.

Jio said that on dual SIM-card phones, prevalent in India, Ookla’s Speedtest application attributes data speed results to the primary SIM-card, regardless of which card was being used to access data services. A number of Jio users have been using their existing connections for voice calls, along with Jio connections for data.

“Ookla fully stands behind the accuracy and reliability of the methodology,” the company said in an emailed statement.

Jio will begin charging for its services from April 1 and extended a slew of promotional offers to users to retain customers. Customers who adopt Jio before March 31 will have the option of signing up for Jio Prime at 99 rupees ($1.5), plus a monthly charge of 303 rupees, to continue using existing unlimited services for a year.

— With assistance by Saritha Rai

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