India gets its first taste of 5G but full rollout some time away

Airtel’s ability to run 5G services over its existing commercial network is a win for the company but a fully-fledged launch of 5G has still several hurdles to overcome

India gets its first taste of 5G but full rollout some time away
Bharti Airtel emerged as the first telecom operator in India to demonstrate its 5G readiness. Photo: Reuters

(ATF) Stealing a march on rival Reliance Jio, which plans to launch the service this year but hasn’t completed trials, Bharti Airtel Ltd conducted a live demonstration of its 5G service over its existing 4G network on Thursday, demonstrating its capability to roll out 5G right away.

With that unexpected run, Bharti also emerged as the first telecom operator in the country to demonstrate 5G readiness. But while it says, “this demonstration emphatically validates the 5G readiness of Airtel’s network across all domains,” the country can only experience the real 5G experience when the government officially allows such a rollout on 4G network, and releases the required 5G airwaves for a true 5G rollout, say experts.

And that’s still sometime away, they add.

“I see the announcement as an issue in optics and as affirmation of intent as well as competence that ‘we plan to do it and can do it’. But I do not see any usable deployment of 5G before the auction of the airwaves by the government,” Mahesh Uppal, a director at Com First, a telecom consultancy told Asia Times Financial.

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“There’s a fair bit of uncertainty around the auction as the government is constrained since the telecom operators, given the government’s stated pricing policy, may not have the appetite for the 5G spectrum yet,” Uppal added.

At the launch, Bharti Airtel said that its network was now 5G ready and capable of offering live 5G service over its existing 4G commercial network without the mid-band airwaves for 5G.

As a first of its kind dynamic airwave sharing between both 4G and 5G on the 1800 Mhz band concurrently within the same spectrum block, Airtel has proven that its network is now fully ready for 5G, Gopal Vittal, the MD & CEO of Bharti Airtel said at the launch.

Yet, “While Airtel has rolled out 5G on the band which is currently used for 4G services, operators globally have clearly not preferred this airwave because the true potential of 5G can be achieved only when a minimum amount of spectrum (60MHz) is available, which is possible on 3.5GHz or C-Band. So, the Airtel launch at best could be considered as a trial 5G rollout,” Ashwinder Sethi, Senior Principal at Management Consultancy Analysys Mason tod ATF.

This means that India still has to wait for the Government to auction the required spectrum [the C- Band or 3.5 GHz] for a full-fledged commercial rollout of 5G, which will offer a good user experience, Sethi added

5G HURDLES

According to experts, aside from the lack of C-Band spectrum (at the current moment), there are other hurdles as well including lack of fibre infrastructure for backhaul, and financial constraints of the operators.

For one, 5G’s formidable network performance is heavily predicated on the availability of fibre, and lots of it.

Industry estimates show that the country needs to deploy at least 100 million fibre kilometre optical fibre cable per year, for a robust 5G network across the country.

But currently, the deployment rate in India is a mere 25 million fibre kilometres a year, with just about 30% of mobile tower connectivity- called the backhaul.

This is significantly lower than the global standards, as well as elsewhere in Asia. In South Korea for instance 70% of the sites have been fiberised while in the US, Japan, and China, the level of fiberisation is between 75% and 80%, say industry estimates.

FIBRE PENETRATION

In terms of fibre to the home (FTTH) penetration, India has only 1.3 million FTTH households in comparison to over 350 million in China.

But a bigger problem is the dire financial position of the operators.

The telecom war unleashed by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio started two years back has left the other two local telecom operators Bharti Airtel and Vi (formerly VodafoneIdea) bleeding with losses and a pile of debts; $62 billion according to credit rating agency ICRA.

According to Analysys Mason, given the Government’s current pricing policy for 5G spectrum (Rs.4920 million per MHz), the price that an operator will have to pay for the bare minimum required spectrum of 60MHz of 5G per circle is $4bn, “assuming spectrum goes at reserve price.

WEAK FINANCES

“Since the industry finances are weak, I believe the government would be deterred to auction the spectrum anytime soon because the government would not be able to attract the price it wants, unless it is willing to revise the price,” said Uppal.

But the government is trying to help too.

On Thursday the Department of Telecom somewhat eased the path for 5G rollout by asking telecom operators to give just six months’ notice before starting any technology using spectrum across the 4G frequency bands.

That will make it easy for Airtel to seek approval for operating its 5G on 4G network, says experts.

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