MUMBAI: Upstart telco brand Reliance Jio built a 100m-strong subscriber base by giving away voice and data for free, but now the hard work is beginning for the brand in India's brutal telco category, according to the company's Chief Digital Officer.

Vishal Sampat said the role of telco companies in India is not just to sell, but to provide a gateway to the world, with internet connectivity offering a rural Indian or tiny village nothing short of total transformation.

Reliance Jio's key demographic is poorer Indians in rural areas, where the company's superior 4G network can offer them entertainment options via mobile. (For more on the how the company is disrupting India's highly competitive telco category, read WARC's exclusive report: Reliance Jio – India's telco 'startup' with 100 million subscribers.)

Jio pivoted to a paid service from April 2017, but the "freebies" damage was done. Jio now boasts more than 10% market share in the telco category and has created a dent in the profitability of major competitors.

To compete with free products, category incumbents were compelled to slash rates in order to remain competitive with the upstart challenger brand.

"We have always said that we are not a telecom company at all – we are a digital company. [Jio is] building an infrastructure, that [will] enable one billion plus Indians to be online and to get access to information that they did not have," Sampat said.

He added that data has been Jio's trump card, and what helped was Reliance's early realisation that people in India were hungry for it.

"We showed everyone that there was an appetite for data if provided at the right rate. Before we launched, our competitors were saying that people in India won't consume that much data, and we proved them wrong – which is why we quickly changed the initial launch awareness campaign to a product specific campaign .. with the agility of a startup," he said.

But now that Jio is no longer a free offering, the brand's appeal will be truly tested in the coming months and years, and Sampat is confident that Jio will continue to thrive.

"We still have a 100m people who pay us, so people moved with us when we went pay. Clearly people appreciate the brand and we feel humbled," he said. "People are using our network consistently and on a daily basis, our data rates are the best in the industry and that is a function of our network being far superior."

Data sourced from WARC