What is 5G? How will it Transform India?

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We discuss the following topics in this blog:

  1. What is a 5G Network?
  2. Journey of 5G in India till Now
  3. The Journey Ahead for 5G Launch in India
  4. Challenges the 5G launch in India will Face
  5. How will 5G affect the revenue for Telcos?
  6. What is 5Gi?
  7. 5G Network Spectrum Auction
  8. How ready are Indian CSPs with 5G?
  9. 5G Mobile in India
  10. Enabling 5G Telecom in India

In addition to these topics, we shall also be answering the following FAQs:

  1. How close is India for Launching 5G?
  2. Can we convert 4G phone to 5G?
  3. Do I need to upgrade to a new smartphone to use 5G?
  4. Is 5G spectrum available in India?
  5. Do I need a new SIM for 5G?
Reality of 5G in India

Overview

We’re almost towards the end of 2021, yet 5G in India is yet to arrive. Given the fact that India is lagging behind in terms of 5G compared to the world, where do we stand in terms of 5G mobile implementation at the moment? This is the question on a billion eager consumers’ minds who’ve already been swayed by the vision of a 5G India and its life-changing promises: ultra-fast connectivity with no latency, robust internet connectivity for everyone and applications like IoT, smart cars, smart industries, AI and robotics!

In this blog, we deep dive into India’s tryst with 5G so far, how ready are we with 5G technology and 5G network in India, and what will the future bring. Most importantly, we try to answer the question: when is the actual 5G launch date in India happening?

What is 5G Network?

Fifth Generation : 5G

5G technology represents the next generation standard of wireless communication, connecting devices, machines, businesses, and people. What sets 5G in India and elsewhere apart is its ability to deliver higher multi-Gbps data 5G speed, massive bandwidth and network capacity, ultra-low latency, better availability and more reliability compared to any other mobile network.

This breakthrough in the form of mobile connectivity 5G technology is enabling a more uniform user experience and the emergence of new services, applications and experiences which are connecting the world at a breakneck pace.

IoT, AI, smart buildings, self-driving cars, automated factories, AR/VR experiences, ultra-HD live streaming, telesurgery, etc. are all being made possible thanks to a 5G network’s Enhanced Mobile Broadband (EMBB), Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communication (URLLC) & Machine Machine-type Communication (MMTC).

Journey of 5G in India till Now

Journey of 5G in India
Source: Zinnov.com

By the beginning of 2021, 61 countries across the globe already had up and running commercial 5G networks. So where does 5G in India stand today?

5G network in India first came into the conversation in 2017 when a high-level forum was set up by the government to chalk out a roadmap towards a 5G India by 2020. Subsequently, in 2018, the 5G in India forum invited communication technology companies such to conduct major trials and devise a framework related to 5G Applications and Use Case Labs for 5G in India. India is expected to be an early adopter of 5G.

As gear vendors and tech companies began launching testbeds for 5G in India and started working on use case development, there was increased emphasis on encouraging homegrown telecom equipment manufacturers to participate in the 5G trail in India. The debate in the 5G India telecom circle about the reliability of foreign telecom equipment has thus been a significant factor that led to the delay of 5G in India.

Another important aspect of the 5G in India journey has been the deliberation on the development of specific 5G India standards. While the Telecommunications Standards Development Society, India (TSDSI) has been keen on pushing telcos to undertake trials based on 5G, a homegrown standard with a Large Cell Low Mobility enhancement for wider coverage in rural areas, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has argued for the implementation of the global 3GPP standard for 5G in India. They remain convinced that 5Gi could lead to interoperability issues. This ongoing debate is further delaying the 5G launch in India.

Then there has been the entire 5G spectrum pricing and allocation uncertainty in India that has marked the 5G India journey since its early days. It was in 2017 when the first 5G in India spectrum auction was first initiated by the government, with the Telecom Regulation Authority of India (TRAI) setting the base rate at INR 492 crore per unit for 5G in India airwaves between 3.3-3.6 GHz – one of the highest rates in the world. However, the Indian telecom operators sought after a more reasonable price for implementing 5G in India and called for a push-back on the auction. Earlier, only 175 MHz was being made available for the 5G in India auction to the telcos – a figure believed to be insufficient if India is to rollout next-generation 5G services and technologies. At present, the number stands at 275 MHz in the 3.3-3.6 GHz band for 5G in India.

2020, of course, was a year marked with the pandemic, bringing India and the entire world to a standstill which further pushed on the 5G launch date in India. Thereafter, in 2021, a parliamentary panel report on the status of 5G in India concluded that ‘sufficient preparatory work has not been undertaken for launching 5G services in India’ – thanks to inadequate spectrum availability, excessive spectrum pricing, poor development of test cases, deficient back-haul capacity, the limited reach of optical fibre across the nation, or lack of formal approvals for testing 5G in India. And even though leading telcos were reasonably confident that their commercial 5G launch date in India will be in September 2021, this report was a rude awakening for the Department of Telecom (DoT) and India’s 5G hopes. Consequently, as of May 2021, DoT has reportedly allocated spectrum for a six-month 5G in India trial to telcos, with preference given to homegrown OEMs, across multiple locations including Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad. The allocation includes 100 units in the 3.5 GHz band, 800 units in the 26 GHz mm-wave, and 10 units in the premium 700 MHz band. As for the 5G India auction, the latest date is now being pushed to 2022. 

The Journey Ahead for 5G Launch in India

Converged Fixed Mobile Network For 5G
Source: Viavisolutions

Given the rather stop-start journey of 5G in India which is now gathering pace fervently, we can form a much clearer view of the future leading up to the 5G launch in India.

As per the government and Department of Telecom’s findings, the large-scale network infrastructure necessary for the 5G India launch is still inadequate. Therefore, in the next 6-9 months, we can expect an accelerated rate of fiberisation to connect rural India to the upcoming 5G services. As per the National Broadband Mission, we can expect around 2 million km of optical fibre to be installed country-wide, covering 70% of the nation’s towers by 2024.

STL is also playing an instrumental role in building fiberisation infrastructure and 5G architecture in India. In July 2020, STL announced plans for investment in mobile 5G infrastructure in the form of software, hardware and people recruitment to boost the Make in India ecosystem. ₹300 crores has been earmarked by STL to expand our optical fibre capacity from 18 million km to 33 million km across India and Europe this year.

Additionally, we have also invested in a one-of-a-kind end-to-end development of fully programmable, open and disaggregated Open RAN 5G-NR and Private LTE solutions that leverage real-time intelligence and Edge Convergence Orchestration to deliver enhanced network performance. Our portfolio of 5G-enabled wireless solutions for citizen networks, telcos, enterprises and governments include small cells, outdoor multi-band radio and Open RAN standards compliant WiFi-6 solutions.

Simultaneously, mobile operators are expected to conduct 5G trials in India for the next six months across both rural and semi-urban settings in addition to urban areas. Various devices, use cases and applications of 5G in India, including remote education, telemedicine, drone-based agriculture monitoring, etc. across multiple industrial verticals, will be tested in Indian settings. The first two months will be for procuring and setting up 5G technology equipment, either through import or indigenous technology.

Following the release of mmWave bands for 5G in India, operators will also test this highly promising spectrum which will be critical in unlocking 5G in India to its fullest via ultra-high-speed Fixed Access Network (FWA) and Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) use cases. The homegrown 5Gi standard developed by IIT will also likely be tested for feasibility, given that it can potentially enhance rural broadband connectivity using ultra-long range cell sites.

Once the trials are over, we can expect the 5G India spectrum auction to occur in the first quarter of 2022. This auction will allocate units in the 3.5 GHz band, 26 MHz mmWave band and the highly sought after 700 MHz band which went unsold in the recently concluded 4G auctions despite an almost 40% price reduction. Reasonably, telecom service providers will be expecting a rationalization of the currently exorbitant spectrum prices so that they are able to economize the commercial launch of 5G in India and make it feasible for mass adoption. As long as there are no further delays, we will finally be able to reach the 5g launch date in India on time – which could be in the first half of 2022. By 2026, we can then expect the number of subscribers of 5G in India to rise to 350 million and begin the phasing out of 4G. 

Challenges the 5G launch in India will Face

As announced by the Telecom Minister, Adhwini Vaishnae, the 5G spectrum auctions are expected to be held in February 2022 with government trying to push it to January. Airtel and Jio began testing 5G networks in different metropolitan cities using DoT allocated trial spectrum. Airtel partnered with Nokia and Ericsson for conducting India’s first cloud-gaming session in 5G environment. The government has also introduced relief package for the telecom sector in addition to a four-year moratorium on airwaves payments that are due on the government. The deferred payment cycle will be commencing on October 1. The government is also planning to change the adjusted gross revenue to include the telecom revenue only.

Before we actually witness a 5G launch in India, the government, telecom regulators, service providers and equipment manufacturers need to overcome several hurdles.

  • Low fiberisation footprint: We need to upgrade fibre connectivity across India, which at present connects only 30% of India’s telecom towers. For an efficient 5G India launch and adoption, this number has to double.
  • ‘Make in India’ hardware challenge: The ban on certain foreign telecom OEMs upon which most of our CSPs depend means the country needs to encourage and boost its local 5G hardware manufacturing at an unprecedented rate if it needs to realize the 5G India dream.
  • High spectrum pricing: At INR 492 crore per MHz, India’s 5G spectrum pricing is almost 7 times higher than the UK, and several times costlier than the global average. This will be of detriment to India’s cash-strapped telcos. Rationalization of this pricing is needed so that the government generates adequate revenue from the auction without hampering implementation plans for 5G in India.
  • Choosing the optimal 5G technology standard: The tussle between the homegrown 5Gi standard and the global 3GPP standard needs to be concluded in order to hasten 5G technology implementation. While 5Gi brings obvious benefits, it also increases 5G India launch costs and interoperability issues for telcos –something we can’t afford right now.
  • Differences in 5G bands: Given the fact that 5G works in 3 spectrum bands (low, mid and high frequency), each one has its own advantages and limitations. While the low bad offers great coverage, its speed is limited to 100 Mbps. Hence, it can serve commercial needs but not industry needs. The mid-band offers greater speed, but not a great coverage area and signal penetration. Lastly, the high band (mmWave) offers exceptional speeds up to 20 Gbps but is extremely limited in coverage. This band greatly enhances futuristic 5G technology applications like IoT and smart technology but will require considerable infrastructure. For a proper 5G launch in India, the allocation to various bands will have to be tightly balanced.


How will 5G affect the revenue for Telcos?

Globally, the outlook on revenue from 5G networks and services looks promising: a predicted 164% rise in CAGR over the next five years, delivering US$1.3 trillion in revenue by 2030. The arrival of 5G technology in India also represents an immense opportunity to add a gargantuan US$450 billion to the Indian economy. If we do further number crunching, we will discover that India is poised to have over 330 million 5G subscriptions by 2026 – another positive sign for telcos.

But the question on the lips of all Indian telecom operators and communication service providers remains the same: will ARPU (average revenue per user) improve drastically? Answering this question is far from simple.

Initial indicators suggest that Indian telcos face a few hurdles before they are able to turn around their falling revenues.

  • The first one is the TRAI-suggested auction base price of 5G spectrum which the telcos are demanding drops down by 95%. Additionally, telcos also want to pay off for their spectrum allocation in a lengthy, staggered payment scheme.
  • The second hurdle that telecom operators in India face is the mammoth investment required yet to deploy pan-India 5G networks in the next 5-6 years. Estimates suggest it to be to the tune of US$7-10 billion.
  • Thirdly, many telcos fear a potential price disruption by established or new entrants during the launch of 5G in India which could set the ARPUs tumbling.
  • Lastly, telcos are also sceptical of how effectively they can monetise the more advanced use cases of 5G such as virtual reality, live streaming, real-time gaming or automated cars – technologies that are still many years away from mainstream adoption in India.

So far, in terms of pricing of 5G technology and services at least, industry estimates suggest that 5G packages for customers will be similar to but not lower than 4G – in line with the telcos targeting ARPUs of Rs. 300 per month. This way, India telcos can encourage wider 5G adoption and quicker subscriptions, before charging a premium for value-added services once a fully-fledged user base and established 5G network speeds cement their place.

Additionally, Indian telecom operators can target revenues from enterprise businesses and industries initially, given 5G’s propensity for delivering high-calibre services like network slicing, augmented reality applications, lower latency, etc. With 4G estimated to still remain sufficient for the general population’s needs for the next 6-7 years in India, there is a case to be made for earning from 5G-ready businesses, healthcare, education, smart cities and surveillances, government utilities, and manufacturing industries. Another area where telcos can seize better revenues is by pushing 5G-mounted WiFi as an alternative to FTTH networks in order to achieve last-mile connectivity in the country. 


What is 5Gi?

Providing impetus to the development of indigenous communications technology, IIT Hyderabad, IIT Madras and the Centre of Excellence in Wireless Technology have come up with 5Gi. For the unaware, 5Gi is a locally-developed 5G network standard, given the green light and the budget by the Department of Telecommunications.

5Gi has been developed as a more reliable and India-centric alternative to the global 3GPP 5G standard. One of the most cited major benefits of 5Gi is its ability to make the large-scale deployment of 5G network in India much more economical. Additionally, 5Gi has also been proven to provide a wider range at lower frequencies compared to a regular 5G network. This is down to its Low Mobility Large Cell technology. Hence, 5Gi networks – if implemented properly – will provide enhanced coverage in remote areas, rural regions and difficult terrains.

However, given that many mobile operators and communication service providers in India have already invested heavily in upgrading their infrastructure and network equipment to global 5G standards, re-optimising for 5Gi can be another expensive and loss-bearing exercise. However, Indian authorities are now pursuing the merger of 5Gi local standard with the global standard in order to bring the best of both worlds without causing financial damage to the operators.

5G Network Spectrum Auction

Telcos’ request to extend the 5G trials was recently approved by the Department of telecommunication which has pushed the 5G spectrum auction to the second half of 2022. DoT had allowed 5G spectrum in 700 Mhz, 3.5 Ghz and 26 Ghz frequency bands earlier this year for enabling tests and trials for 6 months. The period came to an end on 26th November. However, the price of the spectrum was a concern for all the Indian service providers. High reserve price coupled with lack of demand indicated that the auction won’t drive the prices up. This further strengthened government’s decision to delay the auction. Private telcos Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio and Vodafone are conducting trials to test the 5G technology in India.

The anticipation of 5G in India has been building up for years now, meaning many manufacturers have already launched the latest 5G smartphones in the country, with more in the pipeline. As per estimates, the number of 5G devices in India will grow to 31 million units in 2021, while the average price of entry-level 5G devices has reduced by almost 40% in the last six months.

Some of the best 5G smartphones in India are obviously the Apple iPhone 12 range – including iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro Max and iPhone 12 mini. Next up, Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra are also compatible with major 5G networks. Google is yet to release its 5G variants of the Pixel series owing to the lack of commercial 5G in India as of now.

Other good 5G smartphone options in India include Moto G 5G, Xiaomi Mi 11X and Mi 10T series and the One Plus 9 series. Realme 8 5G is the most affordable 5G smartphone in India at present.

Bear in mind though that none of the smartphones for 5G in India support the mmWave 5G spectrum, and are limited to sub-6 GHz bands which only offer improved connection speeds over 4G LTE. While this might change in the future, it is an important aspect to consider while upgrading to a 5G smartphone as mmWave 5G is the true version of 5G where its most futuristic use cases are realized. Another point to consider is battery life, as 5G drains the battery at a much quicker pace.


How ready are Indian CSPs with 5G?


Despite the delays in the auctioning of 5G spectrum and the launch of 5G in India, Indian communication service providers have continued to lay the foundations of 5G technology across major Indian cities. At the moment, CSPs are expected to roll-out 5G networks in 13 cities across the country. These include:

  • Delhi
  • Gurugram
  • Chandigarh
  • Lucknow
  • Ahmedabad
  • Jamnagar
  • Gandhinagar
  • Kolkata
  • Chennai
  • Bengaluru
  • Pune
  • Hyderabad

Over the last few years, established players like Airtel, Jio and Vodafone have conducted extensive 5G trials in the country. While an exclusive list of which telecom operators will be the first ones to launch 5G in India has not been released by the DoT yet, there is optimism in the industry that the big players will be ready to ensure 5G launch in India as soon as the 5G spectrum auctions are over. Their state of readiness indicates that Airtel, Jio and Vodafone will all launch respective India 5G services at around the same time. All three communication service providers have reportedly already deployed trial sites in the above-mentioned 13 cities.

Airtel claims to launch 5G in India within 2-3 months of the auction and recommendations. As of now, Airtel is exploring the opportunity to develop and market enterprise-grade digital solutions spanning 5G, private networks and the cloud. Building a full ecosystem around OpenRAN is high on Airtel’s agenda for 5G in India, with plans to make it a major part of its 5G networks in the country. In lieu of the same, Airtel is also engaging with telecom equipment providers for 5G contracts.

On the other hand, Jio has already planned its 5G coverage for top 1000 Indian cities. Additionally, Jio is also conducting industrial 5G trials across healthcare and automation segments. It has recently acquired clearances for further 5G trials as well.

The other big player in India’s 5G race – Vodafone – is roping in global partnerships to redesign its backbone scalability and service resiliency. 

5G Mobile in India

Indias Rank for global smartphone market.
Source: Livemint

The anticipation of 5G in India has been building up for years now, meaning many manufacturers have already launched the latest 5G smartphones in the country, with more in the pipeline. As per estimates, the number of 5G devices in India will grow to 31 million units in 2021, while the average price of entry-level 5G devices has reduced by almost 40% in the last six months.

Some of the best 5G smartphones in India are obviously the Apple iPhone 12 range – including iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro Max and iPhone 12 mini. Next up, Samsung’s Galaxy S21 Ultra and Galaxy Note 20 Ultra are also compatible with major 5G networks. Google is yet to release its 5G variants of the Pixel series owing to the lack of commercial 5G in India as of now.

Other good 5G smartphone options in India include Moto G 5G, Xiaomi Mi 11X and Mi 10T series and the One Plus 9 series. Realme 8 5G is the most affordable 5G smartphone in India at present.

Bear in mind though that none of the smartphones for 5G in India support the mmWave 5G spectrum, and are limited to sub-6 GHz bands which only offer improved connection speeds over 4G LTE. While this might change in the future, it is an important aspect to consider while upgrading to a 5G smartphone as mmWave 5G is the true version of 5G where its most futuristic use cases are realized. Another point to consider is battery life, as 5G drains the battery at a much quicker pace.

Enabling 5G Telecom in India


STL believes that 5G is a catalyst for change. We believe that telecom operators can add more value to their consumer, the society and enterprise customers with the help of 5G which adds enormous strength to connectivity. There is a need for focused efforts on behalf of service providers for creating more modern networks. For enabling humungous amount of data transfer, it is also necessary for India to invest in fibre backhaul as it is much less in comparison to countries such as Japan, China and the US. Investment in optical connectivity and spectrum allocation are two things that need to be sorted immediately. STL has been investing in the 5G architecture via software, hardware and people recruitment to develop ‘Make in India’ ecosystem. With a commitment to position its 5G ecosystem and digital network integration capabilities for delivering next-gen digital networks across the globe, STL is all set to take on the 5G plunge with its strong portfolio of optical fibres and wireless technology. Our portfolio of 5G-enabled wireless solutions for telcos, enterprises, citizen networks and governments include outdoor multi-band radio, small cells, and Open RAN standards complaint WiFi-6 solutions. These radio equipment and antennas are made to boost connectivity and speed in highly populated areas. Our products for telcos also include machine learning and AI-enabled RAN Intelligent Controller, Orchestration and VNF solutions.

Finally, when will 5G launch in India?

Latest developments indicate that the 5G spectrum auction is expected to roll out by the second half of 2022. This is due to DoT approving the telcos’s request to extend 5G trials.

The potential of 5G in India is truly game-changing. Once implemented, it would be able to support up to 1 million connected devices per sq. km., compared to just 2000 per sq. km. under 4G LTE! With such unprecedented levels of connectivity and 5G internet, we will be able to transform education, healthcare, agriculture, etc. in rural areas, while developing smart cities of the future – all hallmarks of a futuristic 5G India. In fact, by 2035, the cumulative impact of 5G on the Indian economy could touch the $1 trillion mark.

A lot of it, though, depends upon how smoothly and quickly India’s telecom and technology ecosystem navigates through the challenges of the 5G launch in India. Right from ensuring adequate spectrum availability and affordability at prices relative to India’s per capita income; to developing competitive local 5G manufacturing; to allocating low, medium and high-frequency bands of 5G, including mmWave, strategically to maximize their applications; every single action can make or break India’s quest for 5G launch by early next year.

Taking stock of the entire situation, we can conclude that, at the moment, the 5G launch in India will most likely be the mid or second half of 2022. In that regard, it is estimated that at least 40 million smartphone users will be the early adopters of 5G in India within a year of launch. Despite this optimistic estimate, 4G may well continue to dominate the Indian mobile connectivity scene for another 3-4 years before 5G in India becomes commonplace. One can only hope!

FAQs


How close is India to launching 5G?

The launch of 5G in India has picked up steam once again. As per the latest reports, the scheduled 5G launch date in India is now as early as 2022. This is according to the assertion made by the Department of Telecom, which has also announced that there are 13 cities on the 5G India list that will be enabled by the next-gen communications network first. The 5G auction is expected to take place in June 2022, following which the 5G launch in India can occur between August to December 2022. Indian PM Narendra Modi also recently launched India’s first 5G testbed developed by IITs at 5 locations.


Can we convert 4G phones to 5G?

No, it is not possible to convert a 4G phone to a 5G phone, unless one replaces its components such as the phone modem and processor with 5G-compatible units. Similarly, one will also have to modify the software for the same. Since phone upgradation is not a viable option in the market, it is not feasible to think about converting a 4G phone into a 5G phone. The best course of action, of course, is to buy a 5G phone directly.


Do I need to upgrade to a new smartphone to use 5G?

If you want to enjoy the complete benefits of speed, bandwidth and latency that 5G brings to the table, then you do need to upgrade to a new 5G-compatible smartphone. While your older generation 4G smartphone will be able to access the 5G network, it won’t be able to maximise on 5G’s properties due to hardware and software limitations.


Is 5G spectrum available in India?

Yes, the 5G spectrum is available in India and will go up for another round of auctions by as early as June 2022. This spectrum includes bandwidth allocation that is already available for mobile communications in India, as per the TRAI recommendations. Additionally, three new 5G spectrum bands are also being put up for the auction. These include: 600 MHz, 3300-3670 MHz, and 24.25-28.5 GHz.


Do I need a new SIM for 5G?

Yes, you will need to swap out your existing SIM card for a 5G SIM that will work perfectly well with the next-gen communication technology. Rest assured that new 5G-compatible SIMs will be of the same shape and size as regular smartphone SIMS, thus slotting in seamlessly in your phone.

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