The story so far: Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the launch of next generation 5G services in India on October 1. However, nearly three weeks after Mr. Modi launched 5G services in India, the majority of mobile phone users — who have a 5G-enabled handset and are in cities where the services has been launched — may need to wait till December to enjoy the high speed internet.
Which operators have launched 5G, and in which cities?
Currently, two operators, Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio, are offering 5G services in limited cities. While Bharti Airtel has announced commercial rollout of these services in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Siliguri, Nagpur and Varanasi, rival Reliance Jio has started beta trials of these services in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Varanasi. However, even in these cities, the network is not uniformly available. For example, in Delhi and Chennai, Bharti Airtel 5G services are currently available only in select areas.
While Bharti Airtel has committed to introduce 5G services in the entire country by March 2024, Reliance Jio has promised to “deliver 5G to every town, every taluka, and every tehsil of our country” by December 2023. The third private operator Vodafone Idea is expected to begin the rollout of 5G services soon.
A network rollout is undertaken in phases and will require significant investments by operators. For example, Reliance Jio has announced plans to invest ₹2 lakh crore in the rollout of a nationwide standalone 5G network by December 2023.
Will all smartphone owners be able to use 5G?
No. Only users of 5G capable smartphones will be able to experience these services. Currently, of the total smartphone base of about 600 million, only about 50-60 million handsets are estimated to be 5G smartphones, even though the first 5G smartphone was unveiled in the country two years ago in 2020.
However, even users of these 50-60 million phones have been having trouble latching on to 5G services in the area where it is available. For the phones to start latching on to 5G networks in India, the first thing needed is support for 5G bands such as n1, n12, n78, n28, n58 (these are some of the bands that are expected to work in India). A user can check this by viewing the phone’s specification on the manufacturer’s website. A single phone can support multiple 5G bands. For phones that support the 5G bands in India, manufacturers need to undertake conformance and performance tests to make sure that network speed and quality are maintained. These tests take time, and hence the delay of a couple of months.
For example, one of the things that the handset makers and operators need to ensure is that the network does not drop when users move from a 5G network area to a 4G network area or vice versa.
According to industry experts, a similar testing process was followed when 4G — predecessor to 5G services — was introduced. However, at that time, handset makers and operators had ample time (about two years) between buying the spectrum in the 2010 auctions and the beginning of 4G rollout.
A note by brokerage firm CLSA notes that while India has concluded 5G auction, globally 5G deployments have stepped up with 210 operators having deployed 5G networks. It added that the worldwide march to 5G accelerated with China launching 5G in 2020. Additionally, while China dominates global 5G base stations count and accounts for about 60% of total 5G base stations deployed globally, Chinese telcos expect to complete nationwide coverage by 2022 end.
What are the manufacturers saying?
Most manufacturers have said that they are working with the operators to roll out an over the air (OTA) update that will enable users to access 5G services.
Apple has said that it is working with “carrier partners in India to bring the best 5G experience to iPhone users as soon as network validation and testing for quality and performance is completed. 5G will be enabled via a software update and will start rolling out to iPhone users in December.”
For Samsung and Xiaomi, some devices already offer support for the 5G network. For others, Samsung has committed to rolling out the OTA updates by middle of November 2022, and Xiaomi has said it will begin rollout of OTA Diwali onwards. Google hasn’t given a timeline for its devices but has said it is working with operators to enable functionality at the earliest.