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Google dips into India Digitization Fund for telco Bharti Airtel

Pledges work on 'mutually agreed commercial initiatives' – such as figuring out how to use 5G

Google has dipped into its $10 billion India Digitization Fund to have local wireless carrier Bharti Airtel work with it on "mutually agreed commercial initiatives."

The search and ads giant launched the grandly named fund in July 2020 and promised the money would go towards "a mix of equity investments, partnerships, operations, infrastructure and ecosystem investments" – provided they helped to deliver affordable internet across India, created new products for the Indian market, helped businesses to be more digital, or put AI to work for social good.

Google's most visible use of the fund was its $4.5 billion investment in mobile carrier Jio Platforms – a deal that saw the two develop a special cut of Android. The OS runs on low-priced handsets that Jio loads with its own services and many of Google's wares.

Jio Platforms has around 400 million subscribers. Bharti Airtel boasts around 350 million.

Google's billion-dollar investment in Bharti Airtel is comprised of a $700M equity investment that will give it just over one per cent of Bharti Airtel's shares. The other $300M "will go towards implementing commercial agreements, which will include investments in scaling Airtel's offerings that covers a range of devices to consumers via innovative affordability programs as well as other offerings aimed at accelerating access and digital inclusion across India's digital ecosystem."

Among the items covered by the $300 million are:

  • Work to "jointly explore and invest across a wide spectrum of areas to create digital solutions that uniquely serve India’s requirements";
  • An effort to work on "innovative affordability programs" to get smartphones into consumers' hands, "across a range of price points, in partnership with various device manufacturers";
  • An intention to "potentially co-create India-specific network domain use cases for 5G and other standards, with cutting-edge implementations."

With this deal, Google now has partnerships with mobile carriers that cover around 67 per cent of India's market, giving the Android slinger enormous influence over the mobile device experience enjoyed by more users than can be found in any market outside China.

The investment was announced after India's minister of state for Electronics and IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar floated the idea of creating an indigenous mobile OS to diversify the market for such software. In our report on that plan, we pondered if it might irk Google, given the existence and scope of the India Digitization Fund.

Google's said nothing to date – as you would expect given that deals such as the Google/Bharti investment aren't sealed in timeframes such as the week between Chandrasekhar's thought bubble and last Friday's announcement of the new alliance. ®

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