While the buzz around 5G has increased of late, especially after the government set up a committee for its rollout by 2020 and is even said to be contemplating a Rs 500-crore fund for the purpose, it is safe to suggest that we’re at least half a decade away from a pan-India 5G network. And what is being passed off as 5G right now is technically 4.5G, telecom experts tell BGR India. But more on that later.
Let’s first take stock of what has happened: All telecom operators, starting with Airtel, have begun to prepare their networks for the “futuristic” 5G technology. Airtel, the market leader, was the first to deploy the Massive MIMO (Mobile Input Mobile Output) technology, a key enabler for 5G networks. It will expand Airtel’s network capacity by 5 to 7 times using the existing spectrum, thereby improving spectral efficiency. Aiding Airtel in the process is China’s Huawei that has pledged $600 million to “make India 5G-ready”.
“The 5G era is approaching, and we are confident that 5G deployment in India will happen in line with global timeline,” Jay Chen, CEO, Huawei India, announced at the India Mobile Congress last month. “Huawei is joining hands with upstream and downstream industry partners to promote the sustainable development of the 5G industry,” he added. Huawei has already launched its 5G-oriented mobile bearer solution ‘X-Haul’ in India that will allow telcos to set up end-to-end 5G networks. ALSO READ: Huawei aims to make India 5G-ready, aims to invest $600 million by 2018
Shortly after Airtel’s Massive MIMO rollout, incumbents Vodafone and Idea Cellular, along with newbie Reliance Jio, too have reportedly begun preparations for making their networks 5G-capable. “While 5G is still a few years away, we are conducting trials of this technology. It is very futuristic in 5G, but we are using it in 4G,” a Vodafone India was quoted as saying. Idea, too, is doing something similar. And state-owned BSNL has signed an MOU with Nokia to bring 5G networks.
And Jio, the sole 4G-only network in the country, is running massive MIMO trials in partnership with Chinese hardware company ZTE. Jio had earlier gone on record to say that it has the most 5G-ready network which can be easily enhanced when required. Almost all leading telcos have forged partnerships with handset-makers or gear-manufacturers to help them transition to 5G.
But India is still predominantly a 3G market, with 3G data consumption recording an 85 percent jump last year. The country is estimated to have over 300 million 3G and 4G subscribers by March 2018, according to brokerages. It is only in the last one year, since Jio’s rollout, that 4G has started to become mass. And 4G VoLTE was being offered by only one telco, until last month. ALSO READ: India keen on riding 5G wave, to seek TRAI’s recommendation on spectrum auction: Telecom Secretary J S Deepak
“With 3G and 4G subscribers in India tripling over the past two years, adoption of mobile broadband is picking up. In our view, mass adoption of 3G and 4G is dependent on smartphone penetration, network speeds, availability of relevant content and data pricing,” CLSA states in a report. Smartphone penetration, meanwhile, is less than 30 percent. And content providers are still struggling to make their offerings 4G-ready.
Enter 4.5G or the technology being used in Massive MIMO. While trials are fine, telcos would incur massive investments to deploy the technology country-wide. And given the losses all of them are in, it is highly unlikely that companies would burn a hole in their pocket to push a technology that would find few takers. “Jio, for instance, has invested heavily in its 4G VoLTE technology. It would not upgrade to 5G right away before reaping the rewards of the earlier investment,” Parv Shah, telecom analyst at Counterpoint Research, tells BGR India.
And Jio is not alone. Airtel, for instance, rolled out a Platinum 3G offering in all its major circles last year, knowing well enough that 3G accounts for nearly 60 percent of telecom sector revenues still. Moreover, what operators are calling 5G is hardly that. “It is LTE A or LTE Advanced. That is 4.5G. Then there is LTE Pro, that is 4.9G. 5G is not even here,” explains Shah. “4G VoLTE is also not mass in India, 5G is at least four to five years away,” he adds.
First comes the infra and equipment, that will reach completion by 2020, only if the government’s wish is honoured. Then comes the wider availability of 5G-ready devices, that will motivate consumers to buy 5G plans. And then, come the 5G tariffs, which could lead to another war among telcos. “I don’t see 5G being used widely until 2022-23,” says Shah. ALSO READ: India Mobile Congress 2017: Sterlite Tech launches 5G-ready technology solution in India
While 5G technology should logically be able to pack in more data at lower prices, the costs incurred by bleeding telcos to set up their 5G infrastructure may not allow them to discount customers as much. Barring Jio, which is backed by a giant-parent in Reliance Industries, all other telcos are either on the verge of oblivion (read: Aircel, Tata Teleservices) or forging alliances (Vodafone-Idea) to stay relevant.
It took India nearly five years (since Airtel rolled out the first 4G service in West Bengal in 2012) to make 4G affordable, accessible and available. 5G is a long way off still.