Mumbai: Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd, the telecom unit of Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL), is setting up 14 data centres across India to create a cloud-computing infrastructure that can take advantage of, and complement, its long-delayed roll-out of fourth generation, or 4G, telecom services, finally expected this year.

The cloud-based services, three company executives familiar with the plan said, will span healthcare, education and entertainment, and build synergies with the home shopping and content businesses of Network18 Media & Investments Ltd, in which RIL is acquiring a majority stake.

It will also tap Reliance Retail Ltd’s proposed e-commerce venture and projects of Reliance Foundation, RIL’s philanthropic arm.

The data centres planned by Reliance Jio will cover a total space of 700,000 sq. ft, or 50,000 sq.ft each—almost three-fourths the size of a standard football ground, said one of the three executives, all of whom asked not to be named.

Two of the 14 data centres are being set up in Reliance Corporate Park, Navi Mumbai; another two at Mauda near Nagpur; four in Jamnagar, Gujarat; and two in the national capital region (NCR) centred on New Delhi. The locations of the four remaining centres aren’t known.

These data centres will enable the company to offer its planned services like “direct-to-home (DTH) television with a bouquet of almost 2,000 channels to choose from, video-on-demand, mailing and messaging services and voice over Internet telephony (VoIP)", the executive cited in the first instance said.

Locating the data centres in India offers another advantage—it will bring under Indian jurisdiction data that has until now been the preserve of global servers, less than 7% of which are located in India.

Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Amazon Web Services (AWS) are estimated to host a million-odd servers each in their data centres. A large data centre typically houses 50,000 to 100,000 servers.

“If you’re hosted in the country, companies that host their data on your servers (in the local data centre) get a sense of control over the data. Besides, the government, too, gets a level of comfort since it can have access to the data if needed (ostensibly for security reasons)," said a telecom analyst who did not want to be named.

At the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB) Techfest in January, Reliance Jio demonstrated its 4G capabilities including wireless machines that measure blood pressure and record data on the cloud so it can be accessed remotely, and mobile phone-based urine analysis.

Among the company’s entertainment services was one called Catch-up TV, using which one can watch TV shows that are seven days old via an Android-enabled set-top box.

The company also demonstrated a Jio Drive service that can be used to store videos, documents and pictures and allows easy sharing.

The data centres, the executive explained, will feed into the national-level fibre optic network, which is currently being laid by the company, and “pass through state highways, major cities and rural areas, within which, we will have a concentric circle service system (CSS) connecting an intra-city wired fibre optic connection that will finally lead to the fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) line".

The CSS ring will be supported by hundreds of monopoles unlike the regular rooftop mounted telecom towers typically used by telecom service providers, he added.

Monopoles, or ground-based masts (GBMs), will double up as street lights and surveillance systems, and provide real time monitoring of traffic and advertising opportunities, he added.

The GBMs will use an “innovative battery back-up system and mobile battery charging system" instead of diesel generator sets, which will help the company reduce capex (capital expenditure) and opex (operating expenditure) since they will not require any cooling unit nor manpower to guard them, the first person said. “Additionally, we will mount solar panels on the mast surface to charge the batteries," he added.

The second executive said typically these telecom towers are easier to install and faster to replicate and require only four square metres of area with the entire electronics built inside the mast of the tower.

The first person said that apart from offering services to its retail customers, Reliance Jio will also offer to host data such as police records, income tax data and data related to the unique identification (Aadhaar) cards of individuals for the government.

“This depends on whether the government agrees to this for a fee. Currently, talks with various government bodies are on," he said.

Reliance Jio has pan-India 20MHz broadband wireless access (BWA) spectrum in the 2,300MHz frequency band in 22 telecom circles and 5-7MHz spectrum in the 1,800 MHz band in 14 circles which it plans to use for offering high-speed 4G services. A detailed questionnaire sent to RIL on 30 May, but there has not been any response as of press time on Wednesday.

“Typically telecom companies have anywhere between two and four data centres, providing for a main site as well as back-up and disaster recovery, located in different places," said Mohammad Chowdhury, telecom industry leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). “If a service provider wishes to offer cloud-based or hosted or managed services to its customer base, then it might significantly need more capacity," he added.

Vodafone India Ltd has one data centre in Pune and one in Bangalore. Bharti Airtel Ltd, India’s biggest telecom service provider, has outsourced the data centre activity to a third party.

Reliance Jio said it will launch its high-speed data services across the country using a blend of several technologies, including two rival 4G high-speed wireless technologies, as well as other network options like FTTx (fibre to the location) and Wi-Fi hotspots.

The second executive also pointed out that “on the devices front", Reliance Jio will offer a “smartcard-type of device that will create a hot spot to enable any device (with a wi-fi port)" to use its 4G services.

Reliance Jio does face its share of challenges in terms of return on investment and capturing market share. According to an April report by CLSA, Reliance Jio has invested $6 billion (about 36,000 crore) in the telecom business till date. The company, according to industry analysts, is expected to spend $8-9 billion in total.

For one, the commercial launch of the project, launched in 2010, has been inordinately delayed. It was in 2010 that RIL acquired a 95% stake in Infotel Broadband Services Ltd, the only company to win BWA spectrum across the country in an auction the same year.

“Reliance’s investment in the telecom business will generate very poor returns, given that it acquired 2.3 GHz (gigahertz) spectrum in May 2010 for $2.1 billion and then spent a meaningful amount of money on trials and preparations for the commercial launch, apart from interest payment on debt," said a 24 March note by analysts at Kotak Institutional Equities.

According to a 29 April report by brokerage firm CLSA Ltd, the three biggest challenges for Reliance Jio are “addressing the reach and penetration shortcomings of the 2300MHz band (higher frequency requires more towers and is less efficient than lower frequency bands); enticing customers to move from the existing operators and upgrade to 4G by making devices affordable; and becoming relevant for a larger segment of Indian customers who may be slow in migrating to 4G".

Overcoming those challenges may not be easy.

Shauvik Ghosh in New Delhi contributed to this story.