Is India finally inching closer to its 5G ambitions?

Is India finally inching closer to its 5G ambitions? (Photo by DIBYANGSHU SARKAR / AFP)

Is India finally inching closer to its 5G ambitions?

  • The IT minister of India announced that up to 25 Indian cities will get 5G connectivity by the end of this year.
  • The government also highlighted that 5G data prices in the country would be “significantly lower than [the] global average”.
  • There has been a growing buzz for the auctioning of spectrum by the regulator and starting July 26, spectrum will be offered to successful bidders.
  • If all materializes according to the timeline, perhaps Ericsson’s prediction that 5G will account for 40% of all connections in India by 2027, will take shape.

As one of the fastest growing economies in the world, India definitely saw the urgency in rolling out the fifth-generation (5G) network. In fact, the Southeast Asian realized it as early as 2017, while 4G deployment were still at a fairly nascent stage. Unfortunately, not much progress has been made beyond the R&D and testbed stage. In fact, the country has yet to auction their 5G airwaves, therefore commercial rollout still seemed like a distant dream.

Even when it comes to spectrum auctions, it has been delayed for a while now, dampening telco players’ plans. There is however some light left at the end of the tunnel after last week, when the country’s Union Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave green light to spectrum pricing for 5G auctions. 

Following that, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) will reportedly start working on Notice Inviting Application (NIA). Once that is released, the auction will begin in a few weeks.  The Indian Express reported last week that the government has invited bid applications for spectrum auctions starting July 26 after the Union Cabinet on Wednesday cleared a proposal to auction over 72,000 megahertz (MHz), or 72 GHz, of airwaves with a validity period of 20 years.

Based on the government, the 5G spectrum auctions in the country would begin in July, while the first phase of 5G rollout is expected in August-September. Those updates were followed by IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw’s promise this week that up to 25 Indian cities will get 5G connectivity by the end of 2022.

While at first, experts reckon there was a sense of eagerness and urgency with respect to the arrival of 5G in India, it seems like now, the industry is likely to witness the delay in arrival of 5G like it did with 2G, 3G and 4G technologies. In short, the country will once again miss the bus in the global 5G race.

Since trial spectrum across three different bands were allotted by the Department of Telecom (DoT) in May last year for those companies to perform 5G trials in urban, semi-urban, and rural areas, local telco players in India have made their networks ready for handling higher demand. Companies like Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea and, to a limited extent, MTNL, had also, for the past six-eight months, expressed their preparedness for the implementation of 5G network and technology services by conducting regular trials across different parts of the country. 

Possibilities are endless for India, if and only if, 5G rollout is not derailed

It is easy to forget that India is a country of over 1.4 billion people and that doing any kind of infrastructure development is certainly much more complex and expensive. To put this in context, globally there are still only 620 million 5G subscribers in the world, according to Ericsson’s Mobility Report that was released earlier this week.

The same report however, is certain that by 2027, 5G is projected to account for almost 40% (500 million) of Indian mobile subscriptions. “Even though 5G has not been launched commercially, there is already a good foundation for 5G uptake in India,” the report said, adding that there is significant consumer interest in adopting 5G.

Interestingly, an Ericsson ConsumerLab study indicated that 40 million smartphone users could take up 5G in its first year of availability — in this case, this year, if the government were to keep up with its promise. A separate Ericsson-Arthur D Little study indicated that 5G will also enable Indian mobile service providers to generate US$17 billion in incremental revenue from enterprises by 2030. 

“Much of this is projected to be driven by the adoption of 5G in the manufacturing, energy and utilities, ICT and retail industries. Indian enterprises consider 5G to be the most important technology for their digital strategies,” it said. To top it off, total mobile data traffic in the Indian region is estimated to grow by a factor of four between 2021 and 2027. 

This, according to Ericsson, is driven by high growth in the number of smartphone users and an increase in average usage per smartphone. It is fair to note that the average data traffic per smartphone in the India region is the second highest globally. That too is projected to grow, from 20GB per month in 2021 to around 50GB per month in 2027 – a CAGR of 16%.