5G Spotlight #1: Why a 5G Delay can Benefit India

In the first edition of 5G Spotlight, we explore how a 5G delay can actually be positive for the long-term future of the standard in India.

Hemant Kashyap
New Update
5G Spotlight #4 - Fiberization and 5G Networks

Recently,  it has become more and more obvious that 5G, with all its pomp and show, will not arrive in India any time soon. Though it might sound like bad news, a 5G delay might actually be a good thing.


In the first edition of 5G Spotlight, we explore how delaying 5G can actually be positive for the long-term future of the standard in India.

India Has An Infantile 5G Ecosystem

India is one of the largest 5G smartphones markets in the world without a 5G network. According to CyberMedia Research, by the end of 2021, India will have 25-30 million 5G smartphones. That reflects on a good start of 5G proliferation. However, given that 4G devices will cross the 800 million mark by the end of FY22, it goes without saying that while 5G has made a good start, yet that's it. It has just started.


For a market as large as India, every single stakeholder will look to tap into the magic that is Economies of Scale. This allows for lesser costs per user and hence helps drive profits. Telcos already do this; when they invest in their networks, those investments are neither cheap nor meant for a few people.

When the telcos launch commercial 5G networks, they will have a significant number of users. The number of 5G devices notwithstanding, the 5G devices themselves are a bit of a problem. There are a few devices that will support enough bands to operate properly in the Indian market. What's more, the mobiles that support all major 5G bands are worth a pretty penny.

India is off to an exciting start in developing its 5G ecosystem, but it is just that. A start.


We Are Yet to Connect Every Indian

As of now, there are over 1.1 billion telecom users in India, with over 98% of them being wireless users. However, that still leaves about 200 million people who don't have access to telecom services. India has been the second-largest telecom market for quite some time. However, there are far too many people that still either don't have access to connectivity or have very poor access.

During the first lockdown that started in March 2020, we saw what access to connectivity truly meant. COVID-19 exposed the lack of access and the damage it did.

The government has been working to resolve the disparity. The ambitious BharatNet project aims to connect every village with fiber access; so far, it has connected 70% of all villages in India. Apart from this, there are so many remote regions in the country that have a very poor quality of connectivity. The new phenomenon of LEO satcom will also work with telcos to expand the reach of their networks to cover more and more of the population.

This just goes to show that while 5G will herald a new era of innovations in the digital sphere, we also need to ensure that these innovations reach everyone.

The Policy Framework Needs Work

Recently, the DoT had set up a committee to create policies for the commercialization and monetization of 5G. Essentially, the government wants to know the viability of having 5G networks. This includes having information about the current availability of 5G products, devices, and applications. It also includes making 5G devices more widely available to the customers, and what can stakeholders do to ensure that.

While the telecom department works on this, the TRAI has started consultations with industry stakeholders over the 5G spectrum.

A 5G delay has been caused by, and works in the favor of, policy development. While the DoT works out the details and fleshes out the policy, TRAI can carry out consultations and create recommendations accordingly. Both of the telecom bodies need to work in tandem like they always have. DoT has also been playing with the idea of allocating spectrum administratively. While that sounds like a good idea at first, it caused much controversy and litigation during the 2G spectrum allocation. Therefore, the government will proceed with caution this time around.


Apart from this, core policies such as the National Frequency Allocation Policy and the Spacecom Policy are still on the drawing board.

Pushing back 5G rollouts will allow everyone enough time to formulate policies accordingly, in a way that avoids litigation in the future. Right now, the government and the telcos are embroiled in quite a lot of cases. From OTSC to AGR cases, the telecom sector has been rife with litigation. Having a proper policy framework will avoid litigation in the future.

Telcos Need Time to Develop 5G Use Cases


Since the 5G trials started in June, the three largest telcos have developed a lot of interesting use cases. Reliance Jio had taken the early lead with testing a variety of enterprise-oriented use cases, and 5G VoNR. However, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea have all but caught up with the market leader.

Airtel has recently announced its #5GForBusiness, a string of 5G-based enterprise solutions. Vi, on the other hand, has repeatedly achieved the highest speeds in 5G trials. Vi claimed to have hit a top speed of 9.85 Gbps on its 5G network. For context, Jio and Airtel are yet to break the 2 Gbps barrier, and Vi’s top speed outstrips those two by almost a factor of 10.

However, all said and done, the telcos have not achieved much in the way of B2C applications of 5G. While enterprise might be the focus of 5G, individual users still represent the largest market for these telcos. Hence, the telcos had demanded a year's extension on 5G trials. However, the government has only given them a 6-month extension, which will see trials run till May 2022.


Will the government be ready with the spectrum auction by the time that happens? Almost certainly. The factors that have contributed to the delay in 5G rollouts will also end up securing 5G's future in India, it seems.

4G Still Is Good Enough

What's wrong with 4G?


That is the question that we get to hear the most when asking a normal person about 5G. And they are right. In the 5 years of 4G, India has not seen high-quality 4G networks. 4G still has an upper download speed limit of 100 Mbps, but the current networks in India top at 20.9, which Jio hit in September, according to Ookla.

In March this year, the telcos invested heavily in the 4G spectrum (at least two of them did). This saw the telcos get an additional spectrum, which they then deployed in many regions across the country. During the last week of June, Airtel and Jio undertook mass upgrades to their 4G networks across several parts of the country. That was a move that reflected the ability to invest Capex in 4G networks; more importantly, it reflected a commitment to deliver good 4G.

However, India is still very far from delivering a seamless 4G experience. Working on 4G networks should be a bigger priority for telcos than rolling out 5G at this point in time, for at least the next two quarters.

5G Delay - A Blessing in Disguise?

Looking at it from a neutral perspective, we can see why a 5G delay might actually do more good than harm. The current networks can use some polishing and upgrading to tap 4G's full potential, the telcos can use some time to brush up their expertise on 5G and whatnot.

The general public sentiment in India has been altruistic towards 5G. Many have questioned the need for a network upgrade when we had one half a decade ago. What's more, India's connectivity issues make it seem that a 5G rollout will only paper over the cracks. However, 5G's potential makes it an important exercise for the government to facilitate rollout.

It doesn't have to be right now, though; taking the time to make proper policies, letting telcos have a proper frequency portfolio, and giving them time to develop 5G use cases will go a long way in securing the future of the telecom sector in general.

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