India has now begun its road towards the next significant upgrade in telecom networks, almost three years after the globe saw its first 5G network for the first time.
On October 1, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the country's first commercial 5G network. This occasion marked the culmination of years of efforts behind the scenes. The road to 5G for India has been long since proposals concerning the spectrum were issued in August of 2018, yet it has only just begun in many respects.
The three largest telecommunications companies in India—Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel, and Vodafone Idea (Vi)—have estimated that it will not be sooner than 2024 before the next-generation network is widely available.
The Initial Approach of Telecos Towards 5G
Airtel and Jio, two of the country's three private telecommunications companies, have started their operations solidly. Despite this, the telecommunications company that Sunil Mittal runs continues to hold the dominant position, having established itself as the first telecommunications company in India to introduce 5G services.
At the beginning of August 2022, Jio was the company that was most prepared to launch a 5G network that covered the entire country. The question is: How was it possible for Airtel to debut before Jio?
Airtel has decided to start its network utilizing a technology that is referred to as 5G Non-StandAlone. 5G NSA takes advantage of an existing telecommunications company's 4G core network to carry its 5G network. (1)
By taking this action, Airtel was able to secure the first-mover advantage. A 4G core cannot adequately handle 5G. Hence, the network's quality, speed, and capacity will all suffer due to the technology's implementation.
Jio, on the other hand, has developed its own indigenous 5G core and has consequently launched its network utilizing 5G standalone(SA) technology (2). An SA network has a significant advantage over a 5G NSA network in terms of network speeds, capacity, and quality.
Jio and Airtel have made the necessary purchases to provide 5G service in South Africa (SA coverage). Eventually, Airtel will launch the South African network and introduce a 5G core.
On the other hand, Vodafone Idea (Vi) seems to be headed in the same direction as Airtel, even though it does not have the spectrum required to provide 5G service across the rest of India. To find a solution, the telecommunications company may investigate using dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) technology.
The rivalry between Airtel and Jio would lead to an expedited launch of 5G services in India. Both (Jio and Airtel) have put up ambitious strategies to steer 5G coverage and claim a leadership mantle.
Aspirations of Telecos Towards 5G Mass Adoption
Airtel claims to have one million 5G clients already, although Jio has not disclosed any customer statistics yet. The fierce competition between Jio and Airtel is expected to propel India toward widespread adoption of 5G technology by the latter half of 2024.
Jio has set a target date of December 2023 to finish its rollout, while Airtel has set a target date of about March 2024. In either case, the telcos ought to be given wiggle room for the rollout between two and three quarters, given the project's magnitude.
The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), the industry association representing all telcos, gear makers, and other technology companies in India, continues to be hopeful about implementing 5G across the country.
Nevertheless, it also pointed out the hurdles that must be overcome. In addition, it was mentioned that perhaps some delay would be desirable.
The road to 5G adoption is still littered with obstacles for telecommunications companies. According to the COAI, fiberization and tolerization are two essential components that must be present for a successful network expansion.
While the government has introduced amended Right of Way (RoW) guidelines to help facilitate faster deployments of telecom infrastructure across the states for the establishment of an efficient pan-India 5G network, the ground execution continues to face challenges in terms of implementation at different state and local authority levels.
In addition, the telecom organization requested the collaboration of state and local government agencies to provide telecoms with the required RoW to install 5G equipment.
It is possible that overcoming these issues could prove difficult to the point that it will delay the full deployment by a few months; nevertheless, this may not be significant in light of the wider picture.
What Can We Expect From 5G In India?
Initial 5G experiences in India have been met with a range of reactions from users. Download speeds on 5G networks in India have reportedly hit a median of 500 Mbps, as measured by Ookla. (1)
That is very impressive, considering everything. This is barely a quarter of the full extent in the context of 5G, which guarantees a potential speed limit of 20 Gbps.
Although this may be an unfair analogy to compare India and other parts of the world with similar growing pains, 5G still has a long way to go.
Ericsson believes that the performance of the 5G network will be a crucial component in driving customer loyalty. Even from a financial point of view, telecommunications companies must step up their 5G game.
Even though there is a lot of hype about 5G, India has not yet attained the complete ubiquity of the 4G service. On paper, each of the three telecommunications companies operates 4G networks that span over 99% of the nation's land mass.
However, 4G speeds in the country are far from the global average and are just a twentieth of the theoretical limit of 150 Mbps.
This puts the country in the bottom 33% of all countries worldwide. Given this, the promise that 5G will be a significantly game-changing technology might not be very realistic to assume.
In India, the scale has never been an issue for the companies that provide telecom services. According to projections provided by CyberMedia Research, around 67 million 5G-capable smartphones had been supplied to India as of September 2022 (3).
“On the back of the recent 5G auctions, shipments of 5G smartphones continued to gain momentum during the quarter. Driven by the festive season sales, consumer appetite for 5G, value for money, and premium smartphones saw strong growth,” per Menka Kumari, Analyst- Industry Intelligence Group, CyberMedia Research (CMR).
From a startup's perspective, 5G already brings additional options for growth and scaling.
Users in India will likely use more digital services once they can access full 5G speeds, increasing India's app industry.
Additionally, use cases like health tech, cloud gaming, and edtech will gain a massive boost due to the widespread deployment of 5G.
The 4G network served as the primary pillar upon which India's digital economy was constructed. It is anticipated that the subsequent generation of mobile networks will give additional momentum and drive the nation's digital economy over the $1 trillion mark.