When will 5G be available in India?

Computerworld India looks at the progress network operators are making towards nationwide roll-out of 5G services across India

5G in India

5G phones are already available in India but building the 5G networks they will work with is going to take time: The network operators must test the technology, acquire the necessary radio spectrum from India’s government in an auction, then invest in and build out the network infrastructure before they’re ready to offer service.

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 plans to conduct the spectrum auction, 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 60-120 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 have applied to the government for permission to conduct field trials and selected one or more equipment vendors with which to collaborate. They are also enhancing their network cores to prepare for the additional traffic loads that 5G radio interfaces will carry.

Reliance Jio was the first to approach the Indian government to conduct 5G mobile network trials. Strategy head Anshuman Thakur said in September 2019 that Jio is ready for 5G and has the network and backhaul in place, needing only to make investments in spectrum and equipment. The company is also looking at startups to build its entire ‘suite of 5G offerings’ which includes smartphones and set-top boxes. Jio is also the only operator with all-IP network, an important requirement for launching 5G services, enabling the company to implement 5G smoothly. 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.

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.

What spectrum will 5G use in India?

Network operators around the world will deliver 5G service in a number of frequency bands: under 1 GHz, offering longer range but lower speeds; midband up to about 6 GHz, offering similar range to 4G but at higher speeds, and so-called millimeter-wave offering the very highest speeds in frequency bands at 20 GHz or higher. Governments control the rights to use these frequencies, and typically auction them to the highest bidders. In India, only low and midband frequencies are available for 5G for now.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has recommended that spectrum be made available for 5G services is the 3300 to 3400 MHz and 3425 to 3600 MHz bands.

The Indian government had planned to auction this 5G spectrum in the second quarter of 2020, but this could now be delayed until the fourth quarter as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It may have to review its prices as well as its schedule, as the 5G spectrum in other countries is far cheaper. TRAI has set reserve prices for the 5G airwaves it plans to auction, but according to CLSA, a brokerage and investment group, the base price per MHz for spectrum in the 3400-3800MHz band is USD 70 million in India as compared to USD 26 million in Italy, USD 18 million in South Korea, USD 10 million in the UK and USD 5 million in Australia.

The telcos lack the resources to pay such high auction prices following a recent ruling by the Supreme Court of India in a longstanding case over payment of past spectrum fees based on adjusted gross revenues (AGR).

Vodafone Idea, which is the most affected by the AGR case, is expected to participate in the auction in a limited manner, whereas there have been reports suggesting that Bharti Airtel is planning to skip the auction because of the high prices. That leaves Reliance Jio as the sole operator expected to buy some of the 5G bands — but it too has expressed concern about the prices in India.

When will 5G services be available in India?

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

While 5G phones are already available in India from Realme and iQoo, both Chinese-owned, the 5G spectrum and the networks are going to take time. Rajan Mathews, director-general of the Cellular Operators Association of India, has said he expects the high price and limited availability of radio spectrum will delay 5G rollout in India another 5 years: The association asked TRAI to reconsider the prices, but the authority stood its ground.

5G networks were once expected to be launched in India by late 2020 or early 2021, but it’s now highly unlikely that this could happen before mid-2021. Even if a date is soon set to auction the spectrum and the telcos quickly find the money to buy it, they still need to perform a lot of tests before launching commercial service. Ericsson, a network equipment vendor based in Sweden, has said 5G service is likely to be available in India only from 2022.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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