We’re almost at the halfway mark 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 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?
5G technology represents the next generation standard of wireless communication, connecting devices, machines, businesses, and people. What sets 5G technology 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
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 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.
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 in India trials. 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 the date on the 5G India launch. 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 in India launch date 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
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 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 India trials 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 day of 5G India launch 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
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.
5G Mobile 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.
Finally, when will 5G launch in India?
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!
Does your phone support the high-speed mmWave 5G?
So far, as per the specifications of 5G phones launched in India or those in the pipeline, none of them supports the high-speed mmWave 5G. This is due to the fact that Indian operators are most likely opting for sub 6 GHz 5G bands such as N78, N41, etc. The likes of Apple, Samsung, OnePlus and Oppo are yet to announce an exclusive mmWave 5G mobile phone launch date in India.
Can mmWave be a reality in India?
With telcos and the Cellular Operators Association of India pushing the government to allocate mmWave bands in the scheduled 5G spectrum auction, the Department of Telecom has finally approved the request. As per the latest developments, 800 units of the 26 GHz band, also known as the mmWave band, will now be put for sale in the upcoming 5G spectrum auction and Indian telcos are now free to undertake trials in the mmWave 5G band.
Do I need to upgrade to a new smartphone to use 5G?
In case you own a 4G smartphone, then yes, you will have to upgrade to a 5G smartphone in order to enjoy its blistering speeds and near-zero latency. Many 5G smartphones have already launched in India such as iPhone 12, and the ones containing MediaTek Dimensity or Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G, 865 and 888 chipsets.
Is 5G spectrum available in India?
As of now, the spectrum for 5G in India remains commercially unavailable, given the fact that the much-awaited 5G spectrum auction has been continuously postponed due to many reasons. However, the latest update from the Department of Telecom has announced the availability of 700 MHz, 3.3-3.6 GHz, and 24.25-28.5 GHz 5G spectrum bands in various locations for telcos to carry out 5G trials. The trials will go on for a 6-month period, and the spectrum auction is likely to be held in the first quarter of 2022.
Which country is using 5G?
As per Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) data, 61 countries worldwide now have commercial 5G networks as of January 2021. These 5G network countries include nations like Poland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, UK, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, US, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, China and South Korea. Further 131 countries are carrying out 5G network tests and trials, including India.
Why is 5G not available in India?
5G in India is unavailable because the country is still in the testing phase for 5G network in India. As per the Parliamentary Panel report on 5G in India, the country is not ready infrastructure-wise to support a full-fledged 5G roll-out. From high spectrum pricing of 5G network in India being opposed by operators to lack of optical fibre connectivity to regulatory delays, there are multiple challenges that need to be resolved before realizing the dream of a 5G India. Once the current 6-month testing phase is over, the 5G spectrum auction will take place in early 2022. Only then will the 5G release date in India be confirmed and, subsequently, the launch of 5G in India will occur.