When will 5G be available in India?

India’s 5G spectrum auction has a new timeline, April-May 2022, and the country has a new feather in its hat: 5Gi has become India’s first ever contribution to the world standard for mobile radio interface technologies. As telcos and citizens prep for 5G in their own ways, Computerworld India looks at the progress the country is making towards 5G.

5G in India
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The 5G spectrum auction is likely to take place by April-May 2022, union minister for railways, communications and electronics, and information technology Ashiwini Vaishnaw announced during the Times Now Summit 2021. The final date will be announced after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) files a report with its recommendations, likely by mid-February. Vaishnaw also hinted that the telecom sector will witness certain reforms in its regulatory structure in the coming years.

Telcos had reportedly requested the 5G spectrum auction be delayed until May 2022 because the industry wasn’t ready.

It’s not long since the Indian government auctioned off new radio spectrum allocations for existing technologies to Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel, and Vodafone Idea, in March 2021.

Union Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw also said an entire “made in India” stack of 5G hardware and software is around 70-75% ready, and he expects that by February 2022, the 5G stack will be ready in its entirety.

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 60-120 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.

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, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) had allotted spectrum to Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel, and Vodafone Idea to conduct 5G trials in the 700 Mhz, 3.5 GHz, and 26 GHz 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, AR/VR amongst others. The use case demonstrations will be conducted both at end-user locations and at Airtel’s advanced 5G lab in Gurgaon.

The DoT had instructed the telecom 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, the DoT formed a committee to strategize the commercialization and monetization of 5G and the locally developed 5Gi standard. The committee is tasked with seeking inputs from stakeholders, including telecom operators, 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, Earlier this year, ITU’s 193 member states evaluated and approved 5Gi as the 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, then 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 a number of frequency bands: under 1 GHz, offering longer range from the cell tower and speeds of 50-250 Mbps; mid-band up to about 6 GHz, offering similar range to 4G with a speed of 100-900 Mbps, and so-called millimeter-wave offering the very highest speeds at shorter ranges in frequency bands at 20 GHz 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.

In March 2021 the government auctioned spectrum in seven bands: 700MHz, 800MHz, 900MHz, 1,800MHz, 2,100MHz, 2,300MHz, and 2,500MHz, including some renewals of existing licenses.

The frequencies are 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 wish to use them for a newer technology, which must be based on international standards.

Just as in a similar auction in 2016, there were no takers for spectrum in the 700MHz band. The 2500Mhz band also had no bidders. The auction raised ₹778 billion, far less than the ₹3.92 trillion the government had hoped for, and only three companies took part. India’s fourth mobile operator, BSNL, sat out this round.

A lack of competition is one possible explanation for why only one-third of the spectrum was sold. Another is the high reserve price asked by the government.

As expected, 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 when it’s time.

Bharti Airtel acquired 355.45MHz spectrum for ₹187 billion, while Vodafone Idea spent ₹19.9 billion for 11.80MHz of spectrum.

TRAI has recommended that additional spectrum be made available for 5G services from 3.3 to 3.4GHz and 3.425 to 3.6GHz. (The Indian Space Research Organization, ISRO, uses the spectrum from 3.4 to 3.425GHz.) However, the Ministry of Defence currently uses the 3,300-3,400MHz band, leaving only 175MHz for network operators, which they say is inadequate.

To resolve this conflict and others involving spectrum at higher frequencies used by ISRO, in October 2020 the government constituted a panel of secretaries to monitor spectrum allocation and create an annual calendar for auctions to help telcos plan. The panel has members from Home Affairs, the Department of Space, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and the Railways Ministry.

In the 3GHz band the government may have to review its prices, 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 $70 million in India as compared to $26 million in Italy, $18 million in South Korea, $10 million in the UK and $5 million in Australia.

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 us Indians, we have 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 percent of the market share of the overall smartphone shipments. Smartphone brands OnePlus, OPPO, realme, Samsung, and vivo shipped 5G smartphones worth in excess of $3Bn during Q3 2021.

Vivo topped the overall 5G smartphone shipments with an 18% market share driven by models vivo Y72 and vivo Y21 series. Vivo is followed by Samsung at 16%. It’s 5G compatible models Galaxy Z Fold3 and Galaxy Z Flip3 performed well this quarter. 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 it looks further away, we now have a timeline for the 5G spectrum auctions: April-May 2022. The success of the spectrum auctions remains to be seen as telcos have expressed their 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.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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