As India embraces 5G, with more than 50 cities and towns set to benefit from the new technology, where do we stand in terms of 5G mobile adoption right now? 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 the IoT, smart cars, smart industries, AI, and robotics!
With the 5G spectrum auctions taking place in August 2022 and the roll-out slated to begin in March 2023, in this blog, we deep dive into India’s tryst with 5G so far. How ready are we with 5G technology and a 5G network in India, and what will the future bring? Most importantly, we try to answer the question: when will the actual 5G network be functional in India?
What is the 5G network?
5G refers to the fifth generation of mobile networks. After 1G, 2G, 3G, and 4G networks, it is a new global wireless standard. 5G is a more capable, unified air interface. It has been built to enable next-generation user experiences, empower new deployment patterns, and deliver new services. 5G technology represents the next-generation standard of wireless communication, connecting devices, machines, businesses, and people.
What sets 5G service in India and elsewhere apart is its ability to deliver higher multi-Gbps data speeds, 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 enabled by 5G technology is enabling a more uniform user experience and the emergence of new services, applications, and experiences that 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), and 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, how has India’s 5G progress been from the beginning until this year, 2023?
2017: 5G network in India first came into the conversation in 2017 when the government set up a high-level forum to chalk out a roadmap towards a 5G India by 2020.
It was in 2017 when the first 5G spectrum auction in India 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 Indian airwaves between 3.3-3.6 GHz—one of the highest rates in the world. However, the Indian telecom operators sought a more reasonable price for implementing 5g service 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 roll out next-generation 5G services and technologies.
2018: Subsequently, in 2018, the 5G in India forum invited communication technology companies 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 trial 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 journey in India 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 service in India. They remain convinced that 5Gi could lead to interoperability issues. This ongoing debate has further delayed the 5G launch in India, along with the entire 5G spectrum pricing and allocation uncertainty in India that has marked the 5G India journey since its early days.
2019: With a budget of Rs 224 crore, the government announced a three-year program called “Building an End-to-End 5G Test Bed” to foster 5G innovation and research. As a result, 5G trials commenced.
Ericsson of Sweden became the first equipment manufacturer to deploy a public access 5G testbed at IIT Delhi to develop new applications that will allow the industry and key universities to work on India-specific usage scenarios and applications. On the other hand, Nokia is developing 5G local use cases at its Bengaluru R&D center in collaboration with corporations and startups. Huawei also intends to create its own testbed in India in collaboration with institutes such as the IITs.
The TRAI has fixed a base tariff of Rs 492 crore per unit for 5G airwaves in the 3.3-3.6 GHz bands and ordered that telecoms purchase a block of 20 units. Thus, operators must pay at least Rs 9,840 crore to acquire 5G spectrum on a pan-India basis, equating to a whopping Rs 50,000 crore for 100 units for effective roll-out.
2020: Of course, 2020 was marked by the pandemic, bringing India and the entire world to a standstill, further pushing the 5G launch date in India.
2021: 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 backhaul capacity, the limited reach of optical fibre across the nation, or lack of formal approvals for testing 5G in India.
Consequently, as of May 2021, DoT has reportedly allocated spectrum for a six-month 5G 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 band, and 10 units in the premium 700 MHz band. As for the 5G India auction, the latest date is now being pushed to 2022.
2022: Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched 5G in India on October 1st at the India Mobile Congress in New Delhi. Fifth-generation cellular connectivity is presently accessible in the country and will reach 75 percent of the population by the end of 2022. Airtel has announced the debut of 5G services in eight Indian locations, while Jio 5G services will be available later this month. This will be followed by the nationwide launch of Vi 5G. The debut of BSNL 5G in India has also been announced. However, don’t anticipate the network to be available across the country just yet. 5G services will take time to mature and will only be available in a few cities at first.
In India, 5G has been officially released. PM Modi has declared the services operational in the country, and it is now up to the telecoms to implement 5G. In a press release, the Department of Transportation stated that 5G services would be accessible in up to 13 locations across the country by 2022. Delhi, Gurugram, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Chandigarh, Jamnagar, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Pune, and Gandhi Nagar are among these cities.
In the next six months, 5G services will be available in over 200 Indian cities. In the next two years, efforts are being undertaken to make 5G services available in 80-90 percent of the country.
Challenges for 5G in India
Before the 5G spectrum auctions held in August 2022, Airtel and Jio began testing 5G networks in different metropolitan cities using DoT-allocated trial spectrum. Airtel partnered with Nokia and Ericsson to conduct India’s first cloud-gaming session in the 5G environment. The government also introduced a relief package for the telecom sector in addition to a four-year moratorium on airwave payments that were due to the government. The deferred payment cycle commenced on October 1st. The government also planned to change the adjusted gross revenue to only include telecom revenue.
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: If India were to deploy 5G across the country, it will need 10-20 GBPS speeds, which will necessitate the installation of fibre towers across the country. 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 be closer to 80%.
- ‘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 service 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 deal of coverage area or signal penetration. Lastly, the high band (mmWave) offers exceptional speeds up to 20 GB/s 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 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 will deliver 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 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 skeptical of how effectively they can monetize 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, at least in terms of pricing 5G technology and services, industry estimates suggest that 5G packages for customers will be similar to, but not lower than, 4G—in line with the telcos’ target ARPUs of Rs. 300 per month. This way, India’s 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 initially target revenues from enterprise businesses and industries given 5G’s propensity for delivering high-caliber services like network slicing, augmented reality applications, lower latency, etc. With 4G estimated to still be 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 surveillance, 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 frequently cited major benefits of 5Gi is its ability to make the large-scale deployment of a 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 due to its low-mobility large-cell technology. Hence, 5Gi networks—if implemented properly—will provide enhanced coverage in remote areas, rural regions, and difficult terrain.
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-optimizing for 5Gi can be another expensive and loss-bearing exercise. However, Indian authorities are now pursuing the merger of the 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 November 26th. However, the price of the spectrum was a concern for all the Indian service providers. High reserve price coupled with the lack of demand indicated that the auction won’t drive the prices up. This further strengthened the government’s decision to delay the auction. Private telcos Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio, and Vodafone are conducting trials to test 5G technology in India.
How ready are Indian CSPs for 5G?
Over the last few years, established players like Airtel, Jio, and Vodafone have conducted extensive 5G trials in the country. Despite the delays in the auctioning of 5G spectrum and the launch of 5G technology in India in 2022, Indian communication service providers have continued to lay the foundations of 5G technology across major Indian cities.
Because the 5G testing was initially conducted in these locations, residents of these areas will be the first to receive 5G service. At the moment, CSPs are expected to roll out 5G networks in 13 cities across the country. These include:
The government intends to serve over 200 cities by March of next year and, subsequently, spread 5G services to more towns and rural areas.
Reliance Jio has already provided 5G services in four cities: Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Varanasi, with plans to expand 5G coverage to the top 1000 Indian cities. Additionally, Jio is also conducting industrial 5G trials across the healthcare and automation segments. It has recently acquired clearances for further 5G trials as well.
Airtel, on the other hand, has expanded its 5G coverage to more cities. Mumbai, Bangalore, Gurugram, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Delhi, Varanasi, and Chennai are among them. 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 Open RAN 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.
The other big player in India’s 5G race, Vodafone, is roping in global partnerships to redesign its backbone’s scalability and service resilience.
5G Mobile in India
As the anticipation of 5G in India has been building for years, many manufacturers have already launched the latest 5G smartphones in the country, with more in the pipeline.
Some of the best 5G smartphones in India are obviously the Apple iPhone 12 range, including the 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 the Moto G 5G, the Xiaomi Mi 11X and Mi 10T series, and the One Plus 9 series. The 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.
5G Telecom in India
STL believes that 5G is a catalyst for change. We believe that telecom operators can add more value to their consumers, 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 to create 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 out immediately. STL has been investing in the 5G architecture via software, hardware, and the recruitment of people to develop the “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 has taken 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 includes outdoor multi-band radio, small cells, and Open RAN standards-compliant 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 Controllers, orchestration, and VNF solutions.
5G in India: New Possibilities
As India is now the world’s fastest-growing economy and is expected to remain so for the next eight quarters, the 5G rollout is a key differentiator for India in the ever-changing business cycle and a tool to really push growth from 7% to 9%; best estimates suggest that 5G would increase India’s GDP by 2% through productivity and connectivity improvements.
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 employee recruitment to boost the Make in India ecosystem. ₹300 crores have 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, STL has 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. STL’s portfolio of 5G-enabled wireless solutions for citizen networks, telcos, enterprises, and governments includes 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 technology 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 imports or indigenous technology.
Following the release of mm-wave bands for 5G in India, operators are testing 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.
The spectrum auction in 2022 allocated units in the 3.5 GHz band, the 26 MHz mm-wave 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 on 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 witness the 5G launch in India in 2023. By 2026, we can then expect the number of subscribers to 5G in India to rise to 350 million and begin the phasing out of 4G.
In that regard, it is estimated that at least 40 million smartphone users will be the early adopters of 5G technology in India within a year of its 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!
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.
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 and December 2022. Indian PM Narendra Modi also recently launched India’s first 5G testbed, developed by the IITs, at five 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 upgrades are not a viable option on 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 4G smartphone will be able to access the 5G network, it won’t be able to maximize 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 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 auction. These include 600 MHz, 3300–3670 MHz, and 24.2–28.5 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.