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The state of 5G in India: 5G services begin to roll out

Oct 14, 202211 mins

After years of planning, India finally has its first 5G networks operational for everyday use.

5G in India
Credit: IDG

With the government successfully concluding the 5G spectrum auction on 1 August 2022, the fifth-generation telecom services were rolled out in India on 1 October 2022 to the first 13 cities, which include Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Chandigarh, Gurugram, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Pune, Gandhinagar, Ahemdabad, and Jamnagar. 5G will eventually be available nationwide. And Apple, Google, and Samsung have promised updates soon to their more recent phones to enable 5G service on them.

In the August auction, the government mopped up a total of ₹1,50,173 crore (₹1,501.7 billion) through the auction that witnessed 40 rounds of bidding by four companies—Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and Adani Data Networks—spread over seven days.

In a press briefing after the conclusion of the bidding, Ashwini Vaishnaw, union minister of communications, electronics and information technology said 51,236MHz of spectrum, or around 71% of the total 72,098MHz on offer, has been sold in the auction.

Reliance Jio Infocomm made bids worth ₹88,078 (₹880.8 billion) crore to acquire 24,740MHz of spectrum in the 700MHz, 800MHz, 1800MHz, 3300MHz, and 26GHz ranges. Bharti Airtel made bids worth ₹43,084 (₹430.8 billion) crore to acquire 19867.8MHz of spectrum in the 900MHz, 1800MHz, 2100MHz, 3300MHz, and 26GHz frequency bands. Vodafone Idea made bids worth ₹18,799 crore (₹187.9 Bn) to acquire 6,228MHz spectrum of in the1800MHz, 2100MHz, 2500MHz, 3300MHz, and 26GHz ranges. Adani Data Networks made bids worth ₹212 crore (₹2.1 billion) to acquire 400MHz of spectrum in 26GHz frequency band.

As a fallout of the huge capex made by operators, industry experts expect a pricing hike.   

“Given the sizeable investments towards spectrum acquisition, we believe telcos will charge differential pricing for 5G services. Indeed, adoption of 5G services will hinge on the extent of premium over 4G tariffs. In a bid to ensure mass adoption of 5G, telcos may raise tariffs for 4G services, too, despite the two rounds of major tariff hikes effected in December 2019 and November 2021, respectively. We expect another tariff hike for 4G services in the second half of the current fiscal,” said Manish Gupta, senior director at CRISIL Ratings

“All the same, mass 5G rollout may happen only next fiscal as fiberisation (a prerequisite for effective 5G deployment) is feeble now, and telcos are required to launch commercial services in at least one city of each circle by the end of the first year of acquiring the licence, as per rollout obligations. Thus, the full benefit of tariff hikes and 5G launch will be realised in fiscal 2024,” he said.

Here’s everything you need to know about 5G in India: what it is, how Indian network operators are preparing for 5G, when the government holds spectrum auctions, and finally when 5G services will effectively roll out in India.

What are 5G networks?

When 5G mobile networks come to India, they will use a new radio technology and a different network architecture to deliver higher bandwidth and lower latency than 4G (LTE) and 3G networks we have today. 5G promises peak data speeds of up to 10 Gbps—up to 100 times faster than the 100 Mbps of 4G. Latency, a measure of the time it takes data to travel from the phone to the distant server, could be less than a millisecond in 5G networks, or 60 to 120 times better than 4G. (Real-world performance is likely to be substantially lower, however.)

To make the most of this high bandwidth and low latency will require computing resources close to the mobile device, so 5G could also be a contributing factor to the growth of the edge computing market. The ability of private 5G networks to coexist alongside private ones—or for public networks to be “sliced” into multiple virtual private networks—also makes the technology attractive in an enterprise context.

How are Indian operators preparing for 5G?

To explore how 5G networks will perform in the real world, and to gain experience in building and operating them, India’s network operators are working with different equipment vendors on government-authorised field trials. They are also enhancing their network cores to prepare for the additional traffic loads that 5G radio interfaces will carry.

Reliance Jio launched its 4G service in 2016, skipping over the 2G and 3G technologies offered by rivals Airtel, Vodafone Idea, and BSNL. Now it’s counting on its modern network infrastructure to make it one of the first to offer 5G service. In September 2019, strategy head Anshuman Thakur said Jio had the necessary network and backhaul infrastructure in place, needing only to invest in spectrum and equipment. Jio is also the only operator with an all-IP network, an important requirement for launching 5G services. It will conduct 5G trials with Samsung, the supplier of its 4G network, and has said it will extend its partnerships for 5G trials to include Huawei, Ericsson, and Nokia.

In July 2020, Google said it would invest ₹337 billion ($4.5 billion) in Jio to support the operator’s upgrade.

Jio also has support from Qualcomm and Intel for its 5G plan. The latter two are Jio’s hardware enablers: Chipmaker Qualcomm is expected to offer deep technology know-how and insights to drive the 5G vision. Intel has advanced edge computing offering across processors and access to this technology can help Jio pace the 5G rollout. Google and Jio have come to a commercial agreement, where they would work together on an entry-level Android smartphone with 4G and possibly 5G capabilities.

Jio has designed its end-to-end 5G solutions from scratch using homegrown technologies. While it hasn’t given out details of its 5G solution, it expects to position itself to be an exporter of 5G systems as complete managed services in the near future.

Google also announced its plan to invest $1 billion in Airtel in early 2022, of which $700 million will be spent to acquire a 1.3% stake in the telecom company. Airtel has said it will work with Huawei, ZTE, Ericsson, and Nokia on its trials. It has deployed 100 hops of 5G technology transmission equipment supplied by Huawei, improving its backhaul capacity by a factor of four, and has struck deals with Cisco and Ericsson to speed up its core network in readiness for 5G service.

Vodafone Idea will conduct its trials with Huawei, ZTE, Ericsson, and Nokia, and is already using 5G AI technology from Huawei to boost the capabilities of its 4G network.

In May 2021, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) had allotted spectrum to Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel, and Vodafone Idea to conduct 5G trials in the 700MHz, 3.5GHz, and 26GHz bands across select cities for six months. It was to end in November 2021, but the DoT extended the trial period to May 2022.

Airtel has recently launched its #5Gforbusiness initiative to demonstrate a wide range of enterprise-grade use cases using high-speed and low-latency networks. In this initiative, Airtel will work with brands such as Apollo Hospitals, Flipkart, and several manufacturing companies to test 5G-based solutions. These solutions will be deployed on a 5G test spectrum allotted to Airtel and include use cases like smart factory, smart healthcare, and AR/VR. The use case demonstrations will be conducted both at user locations and at Airtel’s advanced 5G lab in Gurgaon.

The DoT had instructed the telecommunications service providers to conduct 5G trials in semi-urban and rural areas so that the 5G beneficiaries aren’t limited to urban areas. Following this, Vodafone Idea conducted 5G trials in rural areas of Gujarat, and Reliance Jio has been allotted spectrum for 5G trials in semi-urban and rural areas of Jamnagar.

In November 2021, the DoT formed a committee to strategise the commercialisation and monetisation of 5G and the locally developed 5Gi standard. The committee was tasked with seeking inputs from stakeholders, including telecom operators and network providers, regarding both technologies by March 2022. 

What is 5Gi?

5Gi is a network standard approved by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and created by a IIT Hyderabad and IIT Chennai. 5Gi will operate on the same bands and spectrum as regular 5G.

The Telecommunications Standards Development Society proposal of 5Gi was India’s first-ever contribution of radio interface technology to an ITU standard. In February 2021, ITU’s 193 member states evaluated and approved 5Gi as a basis for the implementation of 5G networks around the world alongside 3GPP’s 5G-SRIT and 5G-RIT.

Rural areas often have a long wait before they gain access to new technologies introduced in urban areas. However, with the 5Gi standard, rural areas could obtain the same benefits from 5G as the cities, as it has been designed to work efficiently in areas with low population density.

5Gi might not be good news for Indian telcos. Over the years, they have spent millions developing their 5G infrastructure based on other standards. If the Indian government were to make 5Gi the default network standard in India, the telcos would have to re-engineer their infrastructure to make it 5Gi-compatible, potentially an expensive and time-consuming process. 

The TRAI has directed the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) and telecom representatives to thoroughly study the drawbacks and benefits of 5Gi before a decision is made. It is also examining the feasibility of telcos switching to 5Gi.

Jio has expressed its willingness to switch to 5Gi if its vendors can offer 5Gi-compatible hardware at a low cost, whereas Airtel has strongly objected to it, citing cost issues.

What spectrum will 5G use in India?

Network operators around the world will deliver 5G service in several frequency bands:

  • Under 1GHz, offering longer range from the cell tower and speeds of 50Mbps to 250Mbps.
  • Mid-band, up to about 6GHz, offering similar range to 4G with a speed of 100Mbps to 900Mbps.
  • Millimetre-wave, offering the very highest speeds at shorter ranges in frequency bands at 20GHz or higher.

Governments control the rights to use these frequencies, and typically auction licenses for them to the highest bidders. In India, only low and mid-band frequencies are available for 5G for now, but in April 2022 TRAI also recommended that some millimetre-wave bands be made available.

In March 2021, the government auctioned spectrum in seven bands: 700MHz, 800MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz, 2100MHz, 2300MHz, and 2500MHz, including some renewals of existing licenses. These frequencies were not exclusively reserved for 5G use: According to the rules of the auction, operators can use them immediately for existing technologies such as GSM, WCDMA or LTE and must provide one year’s notice if they want to use them for a newer technology, which must be based on international standards. Only one third of the spectrum was sold due to the high reserve price asked by the government.

Reliance Jio, the wealthiest of the three operators, bought the biggest share of the spectrum. It spent a total of ₹571 billion on 133.75MHz of spectrum in the 800MHz band, 74.60MHz in the 1800MHz band, and 280MHz in the 2300MHz band. With this, the company has increased its spectrum footprint by 55% to 1,717MHz. Reliance Jio is expected to use the spectrum for 5G transition. Bharti Airtel acquired 355.45MHz spectrum for ₹187 billion, while Vodafone Idea spent ₹19.9 billion for 11.80MHz of spectrum.

In April 2022, TRAI advised the government to auction additional spectrum in the 600MHz, 700MHz, 800MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz, 2100MHz, 2300MHz, and 2500MHz bands, and also in the ranges 3300MHz-3670MHz and 24.25GHz-28.5GHz.

When will 5G services be available in India?

All the previous deadlines for 5G have been missed; 5G networks were once expected to be launched in India by late 2021, but there’s no sign of them yet.

For Indians to benefit from 5G services, they will need access to 5G-enabled phones or other devices, and their network operators will need 5G radio spectrum and 5G network equipment.

Even though 5G is still a long way off for Indians, the populace has already started preparing for it. According to a CMR’s India Mobile Handset Market Review Report for Q3 2021, 5G-compatible smartphones account for almost 22% of the market share of the overall smartphone shipments. Smartphone brands OnePlus, Oppo, Realme, Samsung, and Vivo shipped 5G smartphones worth in excess of $3 billion during Q3 2021.

Vivo topped the overall 5G smartphone shipments with an 18% market share driven by the Vivo Y72 and Vivo Y21 series. Vivo is followed by Samsung at 16%. Its 5G compatible models Galaxy Z Fold3 and Galaxy Z Flip3 performed well in 3Q 2021. Oppo captured 11% share in the overall 5G shipments, with the Oppo A54 and Oppo A15 series accounting for a majority of its shipments.

Although no official date has yet been set for the 5G spectrum auctions, it looks as though 2022 may be the year. The success of the auctions remains to be seen, as telcos have expressed scepticism about the high prices expected. And even when the telcos can buy the spectrum, implementing 5G will still take time as they will need to then invest more and build out the network infrastructure at scale before they’re ready to offer service to everyone.