Expanding 5G network coverage across urban centres likely by early next year

The first strains of 5G are still to reach our smartphones but behind the scenes are hectic efforts to get India closer to the much-awaited upgrade for its mobile networks, with industry players betting big on partnerships, even as the painstaking work to upgrade millions of pieces of network infrastructure continues.

Industry analysts say it will take at least till early 2023 for widespread coverage of 5G networks across India’s urban centres, and perhaps up to two years for the rest of the country to be brought under the new better-than-broadband communication standard.

But while this work goes, Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vi, the companies that have acquired licenses for 5G spectrum, are turning their focus on experiences defined by underlying tech, use cases, bundled content and device support.

“Even as 5G will provide immersive experiences to urban customers, it will also play an important role in achieving India’s digital inclusion goals, especially in bringing broadband to rural and remote homes,” said Nitin Bansal, Head of Ericsson India.

“With a goal of reaching a $5 trillion economy by 2025, 5G is the road map for the socio-economic development and future prosperity of our nation,” said Lt Gen SP Kochhar, director general, Cellular Operators Authority of India.

Airtel and Reliance Jio’s 5G networks are live in certain telecom circles and more will follow in the coming weeks.

Both telcos say 5G will be available at 4G tariffs, until there is substantial network rollout. Vi is yet to indicate a launch roadmap.

“I think we are going to see comprehensive urban coverage only by early 2024,” Faisal Kawoosa, chief analyst at TechArc, said, considering the scale and infrastructure that needs upgrades.

According to Nishant Bansal, senior research manager, Telecom, at IDC Asia-Pacific, there is a two-step foundational process that needs to happen, fiber connectivity and consumer access to 5G phones.

“For 5G to penetrate at a PAN India level, India needs 70% or more fiberisation of the entire mobile network,” he said.

At present, this is around 35% of the network. “Hence, we are looking at least 2 years for 5G to be able to penetrate pan India,” he said.

“We have chosen a 5G technology that has the widest eco-system in the world. This means that all 5G smartphones in India will work on the Airtel network without any glitch. In other technologies, it is possible that as many as four out of ten 5G phones don’t support 5G,” an Airtel spokesperson told HT, pointing to the wider compatibility advantages of the non-standalone (NSA) 5G over standalone (SA) 5G architecture. The latter is the tech deployed by Reliance Jio, which did not respond to HT’s requests for comments.

More than 100 million smartphone users in India, with 5G capable phones, will upgrade in 2023, according to Ericsson’s latest research. Crucially, half of that demographic is ready to pay for a higher priced plan if need be.

Cellcos are partnering with phone makers to ensure support for 5G service provisioning. Vi confirms they are working closely with Samsung, OnePlus, Oppo, Vivo and Realme.

According to research firm Counterpoint, in Q2 2022, 5G phones contributed to 29% of total shipments (around 37 million units).

Most phones launched in the last couple of years, support at least some, bands.

“Currently, 5G lacks incentives for consumers to refresh their current smartphone devices and upgrade them to a 5G smartphone,” Bansal further added.

The latest IDC data indicates the average selling price of 5G phones in India is $330, or around 27,000. “It will drop further in 2023 and 2024 as 5G smartphones gain market share and become mainstream,” he said.

5G is in a strong position for fixed wireless access, or FWA, as a wired broadband alternative.

FWA will bring connectivity to homes via an indoor terminal (it’ll be similar to Wi-Fi router). Reliance Jio has already spoken about a product being in the works, called JioAirFiber.

FWA could deliver up to 1000Mbps speeds. In comparison, 4G just wasn’t fast enough.

Ericsson’s research indicates that as much as 29% of the demographic in India eyeing 5G upgrades are also willing to replace broadband connections with FWA. Kawoosa believes that while coverage won’t be a challenge, cellcos may not find it easy to define use cases that may warrant users paying more for 5G subscriptions.

5G networks have the dual advantage of faster speeds and lower latency, relevant for cloud gaming. Network slicing, to prioritise applications, also helps.

“The biggest benefit of 5G is that it allows us to do more with low latency,” said Adarsh Nair, chief executive officer of Airtel Digital.

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