India's wait for 5G may take longer

Logistical issues may hamper the arrival of 5G in India

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The fifth generation mobile communications technology or 5G could be delayed by years in India, according to a new nationwide mobile industry report released on Wednesday.

The India Mobile Networks Experience Report released by London-based mobile analytics company OpenSignal says that despite the department of telecom (DoT) intending to conduct the 5G spectrum auctions this year itself, logistical issues may hamper the arrival of 5G in India by at least a few years.

The primary reason? The cost. A recent report from Deloitte has estimated that the total investment required to cover India with 5G would be a staggering $70 billion — partly because the country lacks widespread fibre backhaul infrastructure necessary for high-capacity networks. The technology, while promising super-fast download and upload speeds and video play without buffering as well as support for experiences such as robotic surgery and autonomous driving, will require new radio masts and towers. India also has a shortage of fiber-optic cable backend, which is necessary for speeds that 5G envisions. 

While it's possible that India will see consumer 5G next year, initial launches are likely to be limited to key urban areas, while the high cost of 5G devices is likely to make them prohibitive for the majority of Indians, according to the report. OpenSignal adds, “There is no doubt that 5G is coming — however, the average consumer on the subcontinent is unlikely to feel the widespread benefits of the new technology for some years yet.”

Added to that is the touchy issue of 5G spectrum allocation. While DoT wants to hold the spectrum auctions this year itself, most of the operators are trepidatious, either feeling that it is too early, or that the asking rates are too high. Airtel supremo Sunil Bharti Mittal had remarked at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona that the present rates quoted by the government for spectrum auctions as 'unacceptable.' Both Airtel and Vodafone-Idea have asked for a postponement of the 5G spectrum auctions, which was originally supposed to take place in August.

Vodafone has also objected to the condition set by the government to limit the amount of spectrum an operator can own to 50 per cent.

Reliance Jio, however, has vowed to roll out 5G in the second half of next year. If Huawei sticks to its plan of launching its 5G-enabled foldable phone Mate X in India in a few months' time, it could become the first 5G phone available in the country on retail. Other brands like Samsung and OnePlus could also follow suit, though Apple had earlier announced that it will launch 5G iPhones only by second half of 2020.