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India's Tryst With 5G The 5G service has been rolled out in 50 cities and towns across India by Reliance Jio and Airtel. However, even if your region has been covered under the 5G roll out, you have to toil to experience it. Experts say it would take another 18-24 months to experience a seamless 5G service

By Shrabona Ghosh

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the stage at India Mobile Congress (IMC) 2022 to officially inaugurate 5G services in the country. The fifth-generation wireless (5G) is the latest iteration of cellular technology, designed to increase the speed of wireless networks. According to a Ericsson Mobility Report dated November 2022, 5G subscriptions in the India region are expected to reach around 690 million by the end of 2028.

The 5G service has been rolled out in 50 cities and towns across India by Reliance Jio and Airtel. However, even if your region has been covered under the 5G roll out, you have to work like a Trojan to experience it…Why? A report by CRISIL Research shows the telecom industry would require an investment of INR 1.5-2.5 trillion in the next two-three years towards infrastructure development in order to facilitate the roll out of 5G services.

Lack of infrastructure

One of the premium criteria for seamless experience of 5G is the level of fiberization. Fiber optics is used for high-performance data networking in telecommunication services, such as Internet, television and telephones. Until June 2022, the level of fiberization in India was 35.11 per cent against the ideal requirement of 70 per cent for the launch of 5G services.

"Apart from the telecom operators availing the 5G spectrum, a solid investment in fiber backhaul capabilities has become equally important," said Mahendra Nahata, managing director, HFCL.

In order to expedite the roll out, the government has provided backhaul frequency to upgrade the infrastructure of telecom towers. The 5G backhaul refers to the signal between the 5G core and remote sites or networks. Backhaul usually implies a high-capacity line, capable of transmitting high bandwidth at very fast speeds.

"Right now, we do not have enough infrastructure to support a seamless 5G network connectivity. It would take another 18-24 months for India to reach the level of 80 per cent fiberization that would help deliver a seamless network connectivity. Additionally, for a seamless indoor coverage, we need a lot of small cell infrastructure deployment which can be done by the use of street furniture," said Nishant Bansal, senior research manager, telecom insights, Asia-Pacific, IDC, adding that though the network has been launched but it can be experienced in limited pockets owing to the lack of infrastructure.

"Even though the government has allocated 5G backhaul to telcos, there is a lot that needs to be done and the process would take time," the senior research manager said.

Bharti Airtel and Jio have selected Ericsson as one of their partners to deploy 5G networks in the country. "With our experience of deploying 5G in more than 50 countries, we look forward to the opportunity of helping our partners to seamlessly transition to 5G," said Nunzio Mirtillo, head of market area-southeast Asia, Oceania and India, Ericsson.

"As 5G gets introduced in India, we are ramping up production of our 5G telecom equipment in Pune in a phased manner to support the network deployments of Indian telecom service providers," added Mirtillo in a statement.

Source: Ericsson Mobility Report dated November 2022

Jio v/s Airtel

Reliance Jio is deploying the latest version of 5G: Standalone 5G, which has zero dependency on 4G network. With standalone 5G, it claims to deliver new and powerful services such as low latency connectivity, massive machine-to-machine communication, 5G voice, edge computing, network slicing and metaverse.

At the same time, non-standalone 5G is essentially a 5G radio signal delivered over an existing 4G infrastructure. It uses a new 5G radio access network on an existing 4G LTE network core. With Airtel 5G Plus, the company claims to deliver 30 times faster data speeds than on Airtel 4G. The standalone network can only be provided by Jio as it has bought the 700 MHz band.

"The 700 MHz helps build a cost-efficient 5G network as the low frequency leads to wider coverage and it also has the bonus of a high threshold for disruption:It can penetrate buildings. So, Jio will always have an added advantage in case of providing a seamless indoor connectivity," Bansal said, adding that a standalone network provides ultra-low latency, great speed and real-time communication, which gives it an added advantage.

As many as 20,980 base stations services have been installed in 14 states and union territories till November 26 this year, minister of state for communication Devusingh Chauhan told Parliament.

In a written reply to a question by BJP Rajya Sabha member Sushil Kumar Modi on 5G towers, the minister said the telecom service providers (TSPs) are installing approximately 2,500 base stations per week on average. The highest number of 5G base stations have been installed in Delhi at 5,829 (938 Airtel, 4,891 Reliance Jio), followed by Maharashtra where a total of 4,051 base stations have been installed.

Soaring subscription

According to the Ericsson Mobility Report, enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) will be the main use case in India. Meanwhile 4G continues to be the dominant subscription type driving connectivity growth. The 4G subscriptions are expected to peak in India in 2024 at around 930 million, and from there will decline to an estimated 570 million by the year 2028. Aggressive 5G deployments by service providers, coupled with growing affordability and availability of 5G smartphones, should see 5G subscriptions in the India region (India, Nepal, Bhutan) reach around 31 million by the end of 2022 and 690 million by the end of 2028. 5G will represent around 53 per cent of mobile subscriptions in the region at the end of 2028. Total mobile subscriptions in India are estimated to grow to 1.3 billion in 2028.

The smartphone factor

Even when 5G services were rolled out in India, the non-compatibility of smartphones to catch up with the fastest network was the cause of concern for multiple smartphone makers. The existing 5G-enabled smartphones did not match the 5G frequency bands in India. It means that the phone had the necessary hardware required in order to connect to a 5G network, but the smartphone maker had to deliver relevant software updates for them to connect to these networks. With 29 per cent of the total 37 million smartphone shipments in June quarter being of 5G phones, 5G is believed to become the fastest-adopted mobile technology.

"Even as more and more people in India adopt a lifestyle that is enabled by digital technology, the country's market will emerge as one of the largest and fastest growing in terms of population of digital consumers. From 2022, 5G penetration will increase year-on-year, resulting in an increase of 5G smartphone sales in India. According to a Deloitte analysis, demand for smartphones in India is expected to rise and generate a predicted total cumulative shipment of 1.7 billion smartphones creating a market of $250 billion, of which over 840 million 5G handsets are likely to be sold over the next five years," said Peeyush Vaish, partner and telecom sector leader, Deloitte India.

"The rushed rollout of 5G in the nation left smartphone manufacturers unprepared, as they required more time to optimize everything for a seamless 5G experience for smartphone customers. The makers would have benefited more from a soft launch, which would have given them more time to fine-tune the product and better manage their consumers' expectations," added Vaish.

Sharing a similar view, Navkendar Singh, analyst, IDC, said, "A soft launch and then a final launch a couple of months down the line would have helped to avoid such inconvenience to the consumers."

Challenges abound

Indian service providers have been raising the price of data (the average price of 1GB of mobile data reached $0.68 in 2021) and mobile services revenue has been growing. Despite this, service provider's average revenue per user (ARPU) remains low. Moreover, India has some of the highest prices for spectrum in the world. "This constraints service providers' ability to invest in infrastructure. With the projected traffic increase, service providers would benefit significantly from the efficiency gains provided by 5G," said an Ericsson Mobility Report, released in June 2022.

According to IDC's findings, in the countries where 5G was launched telcos have not charged premium over 4G. India has one of the lowest ARPUs in the world. Telcos have maintained that ARPUs need to go up in order to generate decent revenue that could be used to build infrastructure that would support 5G network. "Initially telcos won't be charging a premium for 5G services. However, in the longer run telcos will hike the ARPU, but that would be across and not just in case of 5G," Bansal said, adding that the data consumption will be more in case of 5G.

Reliance Jio emerged as the top bidder for the 5G auction held in August. Reliance Jio spent INR 88,078 crore and acquired a total of 24.7 GHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz, 800 MHz, 1800 MHz, 3300 MHz and 26 GHz bands. India's second largest telco Bharti Airtel shelled out INR 43,084 crore to pick up 19.867 GHz of spectrum across 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, 2100 MHz, 3300 MHz and 26 GHz bands. Vodafone Idea spent around INR 18,799 crore, picking up 6.228 GHz of airwaves across 1800 MHz, 2100 MHz, 2500 MHz, 3300 MHz and 26 GHz bands.

Shrabona Ghosh


A journalist with a cosmopolitan mindset. I lead a project called 'Corporate Innovations' wherein I cover corporates across verticals and try to tell stories on innovations. Apart from this, I write industry pieces on FMCGs, auto, aviation, 5G and defense. 
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