To 5G or not to 5G: In India, it's not really a question

The short answer is no. The longer answer? Still no, with qualifications.

ByVinay Aravind
To 5G or not to 5G: In India, it's not really a question
Shambhavi Thakur

5G made a splash earlier in the year, when a bunch of imaginative conspiracy theorists decided that the Covid-19 pandemic was caused by the deployment of 5G networks. While this theory has sadly faded from public imagination, the impending launch of the iPhone 12 series has meant that the buzz around 5G is louder than ever. These will be the first phones from Apple to feature 5G, and these devices will be launching in India as well. This is bound to raise the question in the minds of phone-buyers: do I need 5G in my phone?

As with namak in your toothpaste, the short answer is no. The longer answer is also no, but with some slight qualifications.

5G technology is very new, even in the advanced markets. South Korea and the US were the first countries to get 5G, about a year and a half ago. 5G technology is also very sexy in its ideal form, promising speeds that rival or exceed your high-speed home broadband. But practically speaking, for a phone buyer in India, this is all quite meaningless for the time being.

To take a step back, 5G refers to a bunch of technologies for cellular networks, the next step in their evolution from the 4G networks that most of us are using right now with varying degrees of satisfaction. 5G networks promise to be faster and provide lower latency to users of mobile data.

But 5G is a beast that can take two very different forms. The first is 5G in the sub-6ghz frequencies (called sub-6 5G), which uses spectrum that overlaps with the frequencies used for 4G at the moment, and delivers speeds somewhat faster than 4G. The second is 5G in the frequencies above 24 GHz (called mmWave 5G), which is capable of delivering speeds that are much faster than even your home broadband.

While all this is very good, the main reason 5G is unimportant in India is that we are unlikely to see any form of 5G in India for some time to come. There are multiple reasons for this.

The primary obstacle is that no one knows when 5G spectrum, which is essential to roll out 5G services, will be auctioned. The government was supposed to auction some 5G spectrum in 2020, but this has been indefinitely postponed. The government had decided instead to auction some additional 4G spectrum this year, so that the operators can augment their 4G capacity (which the networks desperately need), but even that is hanging fire, and no one really knows when it will happen even with the year fast drawing to a close.

Whenever the auction does take place, there are further obstacles for the telcos. First, the reserve price (minimum price) for the auction of spectrum is the highest anywhere in the world. The reserve price is set at Rs 492 crore per MHz. This means that a telco would need to spend close to Rs 50,000 crore to purchase the 100 MHz or so required for a nationwide 5G roll out. Spectrum has always been overpriced in India. This was Vodafone Group’s CEO talking about India’s spectrum pricing, all the way back in 2013:

"The problem is that in India there is a misperception of what is the value of spectrum. The reserve prices are set too high. India has very low prices and very low revenues so we cannot afford to pay high price for spectrum,"

Now, at the best of times, Rs 50,000 crore is a substantial outlay for any company, but this comes on top of the AGR dues that the Indian telcos have to pay. Vodafone Idea has total dues of Rs 58,000 crore, and Airtel has total dues of Rs 43,000 crore. As recently as February there was a lot of buzz around whether Vodafone Idea would declare bankruptcy. Reliance Jio is the only operator who claims to be all paid up on their AGR dues, but even this is not without controversy.

Let’s assume the telcos manage to overcome all these obstacles and scramble together the financing to pay Rs 50,000 crore for the spectrum. Then they are faced with a number of logistical challenges. The first of these is that the infrastructure required for the 5G rollout will be extensive. The radio components in the towers, which constitute 60-80 per cent of the capex will have to be substantially upgraded/replaced, to start with, and eventually even the remaining part, called the core, will also have to be upgraded, so that the true power and speed of 5G can be delivered. This is not to mention all the additional towers that will be needed if and when mmWave 5G becomes a reality. These are also massively expensive, and debt-straddled telcos who’ve forked out large sums for spectrum may struggle even more to fund a proper 5G rollout.

To add to the fun, the government appears to have decided to ban Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE from taking part in India’s 5G rollout. Huawei is the world’s leading network equipment provider, and the Chinese companies also offer cheaper equipment, compared to their European rivals like Ericsson and Nokia. Eliminating the cheapest vendors and reducing the competition in an already small market is likely to further increase the cost of 5G deployment for the telcos. Jio is already claiming that they are planning to deploy a type of 5G that will be relatively cost-effective, using some of their own technology, but which analysts say will be a somewhat compromised solution in terms of speed and latency.

It’s also worth mentioning that as things stand, the government only wants to auction sub-6 5G spectrum, so the ultra fast mmWave 5G will not be available. Which means the telcos will not be able to roll out the dense and fast variant of 5G that could potentially earn substantially higher revenues per user, and even make inroads into the home broadband market, which is still very small and unsaturated. The telcos have been lobbying the government to auction mmWave spectrum as well in the first lot, but with little success so far.

The upshot of all of this is that for phone buyers in India, 5G access looks like a distant dream. Optimistically, I would expect most of us to have meaningful 5G access by some time in 2022. Realistically, it may be longer yet. Assuming you use your smartphone for about three years on average, if you buy a 5G phone today, you may, if you’re lucky, get to use that fancy feature towards the tail end of its life span. There’s even a fair chance that you’ll be on to your next device upgrade before you even get a taste of 5G.

I remember wistfully wishing that the 5G conspiracy theory would be true, because that would have been India’s best guarantee against the pandemic for a long while to come. Sadly, with our nearest 5G towers being in Tajikistan, Maldives, Thailand or Oman, depending on where you live in the country, we have to not only endure this raging pandemic, but endure it with 4G data speeds.

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