India’s Telecom Sector Gets a 5G Boost

Indian government gives 5G trials the go-ahead

Last week, India’s Department of Telecommunications approved 13 firms to conduct a six-month trial to test the application of 5G technology in the country.

The department cleared the much-delayed 5G trials to go ahead, allowing India’s three main telecom service providers Bharti Airtel, Jio and Vodafone Idea to partner with non-Chinese equipment sellers, so they can work on developing uses for 5G technology that are relevant for India. The operators have decided to work with manufacturers and technology providers such as Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and the Centre for Development of Telematics.

The 5G trials were initially going to be held in early 2019, when Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea had applied to partner with Huawei and ZTE, but the pandemic, and later the India–China border tensions, delayed the trials. In 2020, in response to its conflict with China, India amended legislation, making it difficult for Chinese firms to invest in Indian companies. India has since banned over 200 mobile apps over national security concerns, including TikTok, UC Browser and PUBG Mobile because of their links to China. India’s move follows similar decisions taken by the US, the UK and Australia, all of which have expressed concerns about Huawei and ZTE’s ties with the Chinese government.

In September 2020, telecom operators were again asked to name their “priority vendors” for 5G trials. Jio submitted Samsung, Nokia and Ericsson besides wanting to trial its own technology. Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea also opted for Nokia and Ericsson, and the smaller Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) applied to partner with state-run Centre for Development of Telematics.

The Department of Telecommunications has laid out strict conditions for testing in rural and urban areas, and has given special attention to the security of the network. Participants were warned that the airwaves allotted were strictly for trials and not for commercial deployment, a clause that will be met with serious consequences if broken.

Since Jio entered the market in 2016, the industry has consolidated, and the telecom market in India is left with only three private telecom operators, with the rest having surrendered to low returns on investments over the years. Apart from private telecom operators, the state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) and its MTNL subsidiary have also survived, but are making losses. It is important for telecom service providers to start offering 5G technology as soon as possible, to increase their average revenue per user.

CCS Insight believes the first 5G launch in India could arrive as soon as late 2021, but it is likely to be small in scale initially, before deployment ramps up in 2022 or 2023. For more details, see Market Forecast: 5G Connections, Worldwide, 2021-2025.

5G will introduce a range of new high-bandwidth, low-latency services — be they high-speed video downloads, virtual reality, augmented reality or mission-critical applications, or connecting billions of devices and sensors for the Internet of things and industry. 5G empowers telecom service providers to move beyond a subscriber-driven business model and reinvent themselves as digital service providers. This will help drive innovation, safety and productivity across industries and enterprises.

So far, the most extensive 5G roll-outs have been in the US, China and South Korea. India is playing catch-up, betting on a digital future, and 5G will be the key to accomplish this. Recalling how much the advent of 4G changed the telecom sector and improved lives across India, we see an even greater round of improvement coming with this fresh generation of wireless technology.