In a first, the Indian government has handed out spectrum for six months to telcos to carry out trials. This was done to help the country's telcos prepare their networks for 5G and develop India-specific 5G use cases.
However, even as the Indian service providers, including Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, conduct 5G trials across the country, the launch of 5G itself is at least a year away, if not more.
As per media reports, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea are trialing the 5G Non-Standalone (NSA) version, while Reliance Jio is testing the 5G Standalone (SA). Airtel has also conducted a 5G trial in 1800 Mhz frequency band in India. It has also tied up with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) to indigenously develop a 5G solution.
While the government is yet to announce the 5G spectrum auction schedule, media reports suggest that the auction has been postponed until 2022 because of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
If one considers that the 5G spectrum auction is held by mid-2022, the chances are that the service providers will launch 5G services only by early 2023. Even so, it is still unclear whether the critical C-band spectrum will be included in the auctions or not.
While a delay in spectrum auction allows the service providers to skip 5G NSA and move directly to 5G SA, experts believe that the telcos are unlikely to adopt this strategy.
“There are two main reasons for Indian telcos to initially opt for 5G NSA before transitioning to 5G SA," said Ashwinder Sethi, principal at Analysys Mason. "The cost of moving directly to 5G SA is substantially higher, which is a big concern considering the high debt of the Indian telecom industry. Secondly, there doesn’t seem to be any massive demand for business-to-business use cases which demand 5G SA. Indian telcos are cash strapped, and the lack of killer use cases means that they would like to go with 5G NSA before investing in 5G SA.”
Commenting on the initial 5G use cases in India, Sethi said, “Initially, it will be launched in smaller pockets in major cities before the telcos expand to other areas. Further, the initial use cases will be around enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) and fixed wireless access (FWA) before the service providers move to the more ambitious 5G use cases.”
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The delay in spectrum auction is especially problematic for Reliance Jio, which is planning to sell its indigenously developed 5G solution in the global market. The service provider was planning to launch the solution after deploying it at scale in India. But most of the other service providers will have launched 5G by the time Jio is able to test its solution in India.
The question of 5Gi?
The Indian telecommunications industry is in the midst of a raging controversy regarding the use of 5Gi, an indigenously developed sub-standard of 5G, which was recently approved by ITU. The private telcos have raised the concerns of interoperability and the high cost of network deployment where 5Gi deployment is concerned.
While the makers of the standard say that it will require only minor changes in the network to deploy 5G, private telcos and some major vendors allege that 5Gi demands major hardware changes.
In spite of being the second-largest telecom market in the world, this is the first time that India has developed a sub-standard for wireless communications technology. The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), other premier engineering colleges in India, and the government’s Telecommunications Standards Development Society of India (TSDSI) have jointly developed 5Gi. Essentially, its Low Mobility Large Cell (LMLC) feature improves the signal transmission range of a base station, helping service providers to cost-effectively expand 5G coverage in rural and remote areas.
The Department of Telecommunications (DoT), while releasing the spectrum for the 5G trial, had asked the service providers to conduct a trial of 5Gi. However, none of the telcos are running a test of this technology.
“Global standards allow economies of scale, helping in bringing down the gear cost, which is not possible with locally developed standards,” says Sethi.
As the digital economy continues to become more pervasive and there is a growing dependency on the digital infrastructure, the telcos and the government need to work together to accelerate high-speed 5G services in the country.