The 5G era has finally been ushered in. According to the Ericsson Mobility Report, June 2023 edition, the Indian 5G market has seen significant network deployments under its Digital India initiative since the launch of 5G services in October 2022. It is expected that 5G network technology will contribute approximately 2 per cent of India’s GDP in the coming years, amounting to $180 billion by 2030.
5G subscriptions in India had reached about 10 million by 2022 and are estimated to account for about 57 per cent of mobile subscriptions by the end of 2028, making it the fastest growing 5G region globally. Moreover, India is expected to be one of the first countries where 5G is preferred more by consumers than enterprises. One of the key factors driving this trend is that data tariffs in India are still cheap, and 5G smartphones are also relatively affordable.
A report by CyberMedia Research shows that in the first half of 2023, India shipped around $13 billion worth of 5G smartphones, with the share of 5G smartphone shipments increasing from 29 per cent in the first half of 2022 to 44 per cent in the first half of 2023.
Telecom operators scaling deployments
A lot is happening on the telecom operators’ front in terms of 5G deployments. According to Ashwini Vaishnaw, Minister for Railways, Communications, Electronics and Information Technology, telecom operators have installed over 300,000 5G mobile sites across 714 districts within 10 months of the launch of 5G services. About 100,000 sites were installed within five months and 200,000 sites within eight months of the launch.
In 2023, Jio and Airtel met the minimum 5G roll-out targets for the first year in all 22 service circles across the country. Jio’s 5G service is now available in over 96 per cent of India’s census towns, with over 50 million customers, while Airtel has rolled out 5G services using the 26 GHz spectrum band, meeting the minimum roll-out obligation (MRO) criteria. As of August 2023, Jio and Airtel have installed 314,000 5G base stations, making India’s 5G service roll-out the fastest in the world.
When it comes to preparing for 5G fixed wireless access (FWA), Jio is in the lead due to its 5G network’s wider coverage and spectrum bands, including 700 MHz; and its in-house FWA technology after acquiring Mimosa Networks. Jio further plans to invest $25 billion in 5G, with $5-6 billion allocated for FWA, while a report by Emkay predicts that Airtel will catch up with Jio soon by refarming its 900 MHz band to counter Jio’s 700 MHz band, and using e-band microwaves on 5G towers for backhauling. Meanwhile, Vodafone Idea Limited (Vi) successfully tested 5G services in August 2023 across both 25 GHz millimetre wave bands and 3.3 GHz mid-bands at Pune to meet the MRO mandated by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT).
In the 5G private network space, there is uncertainty regarding the allocation of spectrum, yet many companies have already begun deploying it. For instance, Apollo Hospitals has collaborated with Airtel to set up a private network. Furthermore, Airtel demonstrated several use cases in 2022, including the launch of the first private 5G network at its Bosch Automotive Electronics India Private Limited facility in Bengaluru and a partnership with Mahindra & Mahindra Limited to make its Chakan manufacturing facility India’s first 5G-enabled auto manufacturing unit. Moreover, Vi is also working with the Larsen & Toubro Technology Services (LTTS)-owned Smart World and Communication to set up a 5G private network. According to Nokia India, there will be a wider adoption of private 5G networks among Indian enterprises by the second half of 2024.
As for government-owned operators, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) plans to start 5G roll-out by the end of fiscal year 2023. The government has already allotted 4G/5G spectrum to the telco recently, in June 2023, as part of a third revival package for BSNL that includes a fund infusion of Rs 890 billion for the allotment of 4G/5G spectrum through equity infusion. The spectrum allotted includes 10 MHz in the 700 MHz band for 22 licensed service areas (LSAs), 70 MHz in the 3300 MHz band for 22 LSAs, 800 MHz in 21 LSAs and 650 MHz in one LSA in the 26 GHz band, and 20 MHz in six LSAs and 10 MHz in two LSAs in the 2500 MHz band.
Further, an allotment of Rs 1.3 trillion was granted recently for the next phase of the BharatNet project to provide 5G network coverage to remote areas of the country, following a successful pilot project that covered 60,000 villages across four districts in just eight months. The project will be executed by a special purpose vehicle comprising the BSNL-Bharat Broadband Network Limited merged entity.
In June 2023, BSNL also partnered with LTTS to deploy private 5G networks for enterprises in India. Under the partnership, BSNL will provide spectrum and network infrastructure, while LTTS will provide enterprises with devices, applications, software, sensors, servers and core integration within the network infrastructure.
The government’s reforms and regulatory measures have also played a crucial role in providing an impetus for faster 5G roll-out. The terms for spectrum sharing, trading and leasing were eased, while procedural reforms were introduced in wireless licensing. Moreover, Rs 1.23 trillion has been allocated for the Ministry of Communication, with an additional Rs 55.6 million to build a 5G test bed, in Union Budget 2023.
The government has also been taking steps to scale up infrastructure deployments for 5G network roll-outs. Recently, amendments were made to the right of way (RoW) rules for telecom infrastructure. The latest amendments will introduce a single application for multiple small cell sites and allow licensees to set up temporary overground telegraph infrastructure when their existing underground infrastructure is damaged. The Cellular Operators Association of India has stated that this provision will help restore telegraph services on priority. The Centre has also directed that no fees be charged for this temporary set-up. The recent amendments are in continuation of earlier amendments made in 2017, 2021 and 2022.
In another noteworthy move, DoT has waived testing fees for meeting 5G roll-out obligations in the 3300 MHz and 26 GHz spectrum bands, starting August 2023. Moreover, DoT is planning to conduct another round of 5G spectrum auctions for airwaves worth around Rs 2.5 trillion in January-February 2024. This may include spectrum above the 37 GHz band. The auction will offer airwaves in 11 bands, ranging from 600 MHz to above 37 GHz, for bidding. Additionally, the Prime Minister’s Office has reportedly urged various ministries to collaborate with DoT to develop 5G use cases in specific sectors. DoT has also announced the 5G & Beyond Hackathon 2023, which encourages users to create 5G products and solutions that can be scaled and implemented in the market.
Finally, to address the issues of call drops, call muting and low data throughput, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has issued a consultation paper to review the quality of service standards for telecom operators and broadband service providers in 5G services.
Despite progressive amendments to the RoW rules to facilitate faster telecom infrastructure deployment, there are still challenges faced by local entities, municipal corporations and wards in implementing these changes on the ground.
There is a lot that needs to be done to facilitate laying of optical fibre and deployment of telecom towers, especially at the state level. Despite India being the second largest telecommunications market globally, the fibre km per capita in India is relatively very low. 5G roll-out, however, has led to an increase in fibre penetration in India. According to the Digital Infrastructure Providers Association, fibre penetration has risen from 35 per cent before the 5G roll-out to approximately 38.44 per cent now.
Sustaining the growth momentum
Indian telecom companies have made significant investments in launching 5G services. However, concerns about optimal monetisation of the 5G network remain. Although there is potential for 5G monetisation, concerted efforts are needed to bring the ecosystem together and make it work end to end. Going forward, bridging the gaps and encouraging increased competition will be crucial to sustaining the growth momentum to leverage 5G’s potential for reshaping the country’s socio-economic fabric.