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Ambani's Reliance Jio joins race for world's cheapest phone with Google

JioPhone Next to debut in September on operating system designed specifically for India

In September, Jio, the telecom arm of Reliance Industries, will roll out an affordable smartphone specially developed for the massive Indian market in partnership with Google.    © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- Billionaire Mukesh Ambani, the chairman of Reliance Industries, announced on Thursday a "breakthrough" smartphone that has been developed by Jio, his Indian conglomerate's telecom arm, in partnership with Google and will be launched on Sept. 10.

The JioPhone Next is an Android phone running "an extremely optimized" operating system that Jio and Google have developed specially for the Indian market, Ambani said during the company's 44th annual general meeting. For the second year running, this was a virtual gathering because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ambani noted that Jio is the first operator outside China to have more than 400 million subscribers in a single country. It is also the world's second largest mobile data carrier, handling monthly traffic of over 6.3 billion gigabytes.

"It is my promise that JioPhone Next will be among the most affordable smartphones not just in India, but globally," said Ambani, who was widely reported to be the richest person in Asia in 2021.

Even though Jio offers affordable 4G broadband services, India still has about 300 million mobile users who are unable to upgrade from inefficient 2G services when even a basic 4G smartphone is beyond their means. "Therefore, an ultra-affordable 4G smartphone is essential to make India 2G-free," said Ambani.

JioPhone Next features include voice assistant, automatic read-aloud of screen text, language translation, and smart camera with augmented reality filters.

Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai joined the AGM and said the Google-Jio partnership couldn't wait to unveil the device later in the year, and that it would carry on into the realms of 5G and Google Cloud. That will enable more than a billion Indians to connect to a faster and better internet, support businesses in their digital transformation, and assist Jio build new services in sectors like health and education -- "laying a foundation for the next phase of India's digitization."

Earlier this month, competitors Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel reportedly started 5G trials in the cities of Mumbai and Gurgaon respectively, following a government green light in May.

On Monday, Airtel announced a strategic partnership with Tata Group to pursue 5G networks solutions for India in an apparent bid to rival Jio technology. The pilot is scheduled to start in January 2022.

In another announcement, Ambani said he expected Reliance Industries' $15 billion deal with Saudi Aramco to be formalized this year in an "expeditious" manner.

That agreement, announced in 2019, called for selling a 20% stake in the Indian conglomerate's oil-to-chemicals (O2C) business. But the deal stalled as the coronavirus pandemic sent oil demand and prices crashing.

"We look forward to welcoming Saudi Aramco as a strategic partner in our O2C business," he said. 

Ambani also said Aramco Chairman Yasir al-Rumayyan -- who doubles as the governor of the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund -- will join the board of Reliance Industries as an independent director.

Al-Rumayyan "is one of the most renowned names in energy and finance globally," Ambani said. "I am sure that we will immensely benefit from his rich experience with one of the world's largest companies, and also one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world."

Having al-Rumayyan join the board marks the "beginning of internationalization of Reliance," with more announcements about global plans to come, Ambani said.

Reliance raised $44.4 billion during the financial year that ended in March through stake sales, rights issues and asset monetization, said Ambani, who noted that this figure was the most by any company globally in a year -- and was achieved amid the pandemic.

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