India ramps up supply chain for 5G service launch in 2021 pending spectrum auction

There is excitement about the anticipated launch of 5G telecom services in India, but the government’s spectrum pricing strategy may be a damper. While the evolving ancillary segments are working on the backbone infrastructure for the 5G roll-out following Reliance Industries Ltd chairman Mukesh Ambani’s assurance that Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd will launch 5G wireless service in the second half of 2021, experts, however, said that India is not 100% ready.

India telecom equipment company Sterlite Technologies Ltd (STL) said India has been developing 5G infrastructure, but a pan-India roll out will require improving the device, spectrum, wireless and fiber optic ecosystem. “India has the capability of rolling out 5G as we have been building the infrastructure for years now. However, for a countrywide end-to-end deployment, India is not 100% ready… At STL, we will start commercial deployment of open-RAN (open radio access) that is required for 5G by second half of 2021,” said Anand Agarwal, group chief executive at STL.  The primary impact of 5G roll-out will be on the commercial ecosystem.  According to Agarwal, global supply chains have already matured and are 5G-ready, which makes it easier to import raw material (this author finds that very difficult to believe).

Experts said stressed financials of Bharti Airtel Ltd and Vodafone Idea Ltd (Vi) could discourage them to participate in the 5G launch, in view of the costs involving fiberization and the pricing of spectrum. Airtel and Vi are sitting on massive debts but continue to offer among the lowest tariffs in the world. The telcos have also called for affordable spectrum.

Analysts said the spectrum auction in March may see limited participation from Airtel and Vi due to high reserve prices. Jio, however, is likely to buy spectrum in the 700 megahertz (MHz) band, which is best suited for 5G.

Meanwhile, phone makers have also started producing 5G devices too. Faisal Kawoosa, the founder of techARC, said that India imported nearly two million 5G smartphones in 2020. “While most of these were in ultra-premium range, this year, any new smartphone priced above 30,000 should support 5G,” Kawoosa said, adding that 7-9% of all smartphones sold in India in 2021 are likely to support 5G, making it nearly four times the imports.  However, will those so called “5G” users actually get 5G service, especially when roaming?


The big 3 Indian telcos are likely to voice their concerns to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) as the National Frequency Allocation Plan (NFAP-2018) has not been updated by the department’s wireless planning cell (WPC) more than a year after several new airwave bands, including the 26 Ghz spectrum, were identified by the ITU-R WRC 19 for 5G deployments worldwide, including in India.

The NFAP is a central policy roadmap that defines future spectrum usage by all bodies in the country, including DoT, the Department of Space and the defence ministry. Telcos want it revised quickly as any further delay could potentially hinder the auctioning of the premium millimetre-wave 5G bands.

“The NFAP-2018 needs to be revised expeditiously by the WPC to align different stakeholders if a meaningful 5G auction is to happen later this year, and the industry will take up the matter with DoT,” a senior industry executive told ET.

In November 2019, WRC-19 identified a set of new airwaves, including the 24.25-27.5 Ghz (popularly known as the 26 Ghz band), 37-43.5 Ghz, 45.5-47 Ghz, 47.2-48.2 Ghz and 66-71 Ghz bands for 5G services. However, none of these bands (primarily the mm waves) have been included in India’s NFAP.  Note also that ITU-R WP5D has not yet agreed on a revision of ITU-R M.1036  which would include the new frequency arrangements agreed during WRC 19 for terrestrial IMT deployments.