While the US, South Korea, China, Japan, and many European countries have already launched commercial 5G services, in India, the reality looks bleak. India is one of the largest smartphone markets in the world and still, spectrum bidding for 5G has not yet begun. That said, after the peak of the pandemic, the government is looking to allocate new 5G spectrums to India’s major telecom operators — Jio, Airtel, and Vodafone Idea — in March 2021. So if you want to learn about the present status of 5G in India and what telecom operators are doing to bring 5G to the masses then go through our extensive explainer below.
5G in India: The Development So Far (2021)
Here, we are going to discuss all three major telecom operators in India — Jio, Airtel, and Vodafone Idea — and what their 5G gameplan is. But before that, I would strongly recommend you to go through our article on 5G bands: sub-6GHz and mmWave to fully understand what kind of 5G services are coming to India.
I am going to start with Jio as it’s currently the largest telecom operator in India and it’s being touted to bring the “true” 5G to the masses. First, let’s talk about what information is already available in the public domain. So far, Reliance has shown interest in offering 5G services in both mid-band and high-frequency mmWave bands. Reliance is looking to buy the 3.5GHz frequency band for mid-band 5G services and 24GHz and 26GHz for premium, gigabit 5G services.
Looking at the choice, it’s clear Reliance wants to use the sub-6GHz channel to bring 5G services and not just relying on 4G spectrums to offer “improved” 5G services to users. As for mmWave, 24GHz and 26GHz frequency bands mean you will get unparalleled speed on Jio’s network.
Having said all of that, the important question remains: will the 5G deployment of Jio be Standalone (SA) or Non-standalone (NSA)? Will it use its existing 4G infrastructure to offer 5G services? Well, this is where things get really exciting. Jio is claiming that it will bring “true” 5G meaning it will deploy SA 5G where the core, radio, and antennas — all will be built on 5G architecture. That’s an astounding claim since major carriers all over the world have shown hesitance in deploying SA 5G since it’s prohibitively expensive.
On top of that, Jio is claiming that it has built “indigenous 5G tech” which is hard to believe on the face. So let’s start with each claim and dissect what approach Reliance is taking to bring SA 5G in India. There are several ways to deploy 5G within SA and NSA modes, starting with Option 1 to Option 7. Jio is said to be using “Option 6” where the radio network and antennas are on 5G architecture, but still uses the 4G core, also called the EPC (Evolved Packet Core).
As we have discussed in our 5G Bands article, this looks like an NSA 5G and not a full-fledged SA 5G. So what is Reliance pulling here? According to Satish Jamadagni, Vice President of Network Planning Engineering at Reliance Jio, the company will be virtualizing the 4G EPC through software to move it to the 5G core. And for precisely that, Reliance in 2018, acquired a US-based company called Radisys. The company has expertise in virtualization and OpenRAN technology (more on this below) and is likely to be the force behind Jio’s unique approach to 5G.
The Indigenous 5G Solution of Jio
Now coming to the “made in India 5G solution” claim, there is no clear picture as to how Jio is pulling this. In terms of 5G patents, Jio only has a total of 29 patents (not just 5G) whereas Huawei has over 3000 5G patents, followed by Samsung and ZTE standing around the 2800 mark. So it begs the question, how is Reliance asserting that it has built a 5G solution from scratch as it requires years of research and development?
According to Livemint, Reliance is perhaps buying components from partners like Nokia and Ericsson and building its own radio stack using the OpenRAN technology. To briefly explain this technology, generally, equipment vendors sell the whole end-to-end network gear — from hardware components to software which becomes an expensive buy for telecom operators. So telecom operators have come up with new ways to minimize cost. Now, companies take advantage of low-cost, open-source OpenRAN technology that enables mobile network operators to use equipment from multiple vendors and still ensure interoperability.
Perhaps, this is what Reliance is professing when it says that it has built indigenous 5G technology from scratch without deploying components from Chinese players like Huawei and ZTE. Nevertheless, how much all this translates to true 5G is left to be seen. As for the foreseeable future, Reliance is not going to substantially invest in SA 5G core — meaning you won’t get ultra-low latency and other 5G niceties. We will have to wait and see if Reliance’s efforts on EPC virtualization and OpenRAN technology pay off when 5G goes live in India, probably in late 2021.
Recently, Airtel hogged the limelight by becoming the first telecom operator in India to have tested 5G on a commercial network in Hyderabad. It surely is a great sign of 5G “readiness” of Airtel, but we have to look beyond that. Airtel did the 5G test on its legacy 4G spectrum — 1.8GHz — which falls under the low-band 5G frequency band and it’s only slightly better than 4G. Airtel has stated that it’s going to use 1800MHz, 2300MHz, and 2100 MHz for low-band 5G services across India.
As for mid-band frequency, Airtel is looking to bid spectrums between 3.3GHz – 3.6GHz for offering NSA sub-6GHz 5G services to its consumers. So far, there has been no news about Airtel procuring mmWave frequency bands so gigabit, ultra-low latency 5G will be a distant dream on Airtel’s network for a few coming years.
Keep in mind, Airtel has been asked by the Supreme Court of India to pay the AGR Dues which runs into thousands of crores so the prospect of a wide 5G rollout across the country seems unlikely. Apart from that, on the procurement of radio equipment, Airtel is said to be preferring European vendors like Nokia and Ericsson over the Chinese vendors.
In case, you are unaware, the Indian government has not formally blocked Chinese players (Huawei, ZTE, etc.) from participating in 5G trials in India, but has left the decision to telecom operators. And telecom operators seem to be toeing the government line.
Vodafone Idea has shown keen interest in the upcoming bidding process of 5G spectrums, but experts believe that its financials might not allow the company to buy spectrums between 3.3GHz – 3.6GHz. Along with Airtel, Vodafone Idea is also hit by AGR Dues and the company’s loss is widening day by day. Not to mention, Vodafone Idea’s 1800MHz spectrum license is about to get expired so in the next auction, Vodafone Idea will perhaps look to renew its license rather than buy new radio spectrums.
Having said all of that, Vodafone Idea has stated that it has made changes in its infrastructure and is ready to roll out 5G whenever the spectrum becomes available. There has been a report saying that Vodafone India is doing trials on “Option 3 (LTE+5G core)” NSA 5G with Nokia. All in all, for now, we can conclude that Vodafone Idea might be able to get some tranche of sub-6GHz frequency band and perhaps offer its initial 5G services in a select few metropolises, but that is all.
5G in India Explained: Jio, Airtel, and Vodafone Idea
So that was our in-depth explainer on 5G in India and what major telecom operators are up to with their 5G preparedness. As we went through the article, it’s clear that Jio is looking to offer premium 5G services across the country and is moving in a unique direction. As for Airtel, you are likely to get sub-6GHz 5G in cities and low-band 5G in rural areas in the near future.
Lastly, Vodafone Idea seems to be on a financial crunch and it will be a miracle if they manage to obtain some spectrums in the sub-6GHz frequency band. Anyway, that is all from us. If you want to learn about the 5G bands in the US for Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile then go through our linked article. And if you have any questions then let us know in the comment section below.