Consumer eagerly await 5G, but its launch in India may take time - here's why

India's first 5G
(Image credit: Interne)

India has witnessed several smartphone brands launching 5G-enabled devices over the past few months, but it appears as though customers may have to wait for some more time before they can use it over a high-speed network. 

While several major smartphone markets have shifted over to 5G connectivity, India was hoping for the new network to start operations in 2021, though all we have now is one operator offering the network in one small circle in one city. Yes, we refer to Airtel's big announcement on Hyderabad. 

Moreover, a good chunk of the developing and developed markets have already had commercially available 5G connectivity and these smartphone makers aren’t at fault for producing 5G-enabled devices. However, it is also a fact that customers also are not actually falling over each other to adopt the new technology.

Ironically, the glitch, if one were to term it as such, seems to lie elsewhere. In India, the challenge seems to be red-tape, lethargy or probably a bit of both. The federal government's department of technology (DoT) appears to have forgotten lessons of the past while launching 5G services. 

Shashi Tharoor, a lawmaker in Parliament who heads its Standing Committee on Information Technology, says India could miss the 5G bus as it had done in the past with 2G, 3G and 4G. It is interesting that Tharoor's comment appears to include his own Congress party's regime that shepherded the earlier telecom revolutions. 

So, where lies the challenge?

In a report tabled in the Parliament, Tharoor reveals that the committee had been informed that by the end of 2021 or early 2022, India will see the roll-out of 5G. But only for specific use cases as the department itself feels that “4G should continue in India for at least another 5-6 years.”

Which is why the committee is ruling out early deployment of a 5G network in India, which the learned lawmakers believe is at a nascent stage of preparation for getting the network up. "The committee are inclined to conclude that sufficient preparatory work has not been undertaken for launching 5G services in India. As such, India has not moved beyond the modest beginning stage as compared to other countries in the world," the report said. 

Tharoor specifically sought the intervention of the federal government to create a focussed effort around testing 5G services. For this, he said ground rules need to be in place as quickly as possible. 

He further noted that the authorities had informed the committee that the telecom operators had submitted applications of 5G trial in January 2020 and till date, the guidelines for trials are missing. There is no set date for commencement of these trials.” On the other hand, DoT has assured that the testbed for 5G trials is expected to be ready by October 2021.

So finally, when do we get to see 5G in India? 

His remarks do not paint a rosy picture for the future 5G services in India, that is  if you were looking for one at all. While Jio has maintained that it is ready to test 5G on its own and Airtel claims it is 5G ready, there is a sense of ennui about the officials who need to get their act together to initiate the testing process. 

For starters, the Telecom Ministry needs to allocate the relevant spectrum, post which the operators can get ready for the commercial roll-out of the next-gen connectivity standards. While the ministry has already announced the auction of spectrum worth Rs 3.92 lakh crore from March 1, it, unfortunately, does not include the desired frequency band for 5G services.

There is another round of spectrum auction that is planned to be held after six months and subject to the successful and timely 5G tests. Which means the roll-out of 5G services may begin only in early-2022. At least this is what the Parliamentary committee is expecting.

The telcos also had pushed back the idea of 5G spectrum sale because they simply lacked the financial muscle to participate in one and wanted the spectrum prices to be kept affordable. However, the government isn’t ready to budge and let go of a massive chunk of revenue.

Given how the market has evolved in recent times, telcos are not making big profits and have invested heavily in upgrading themselves to become 4G compliant. Which could also be a reason why they are not ready to make an additional investment to further upgrade to 5G ready infrastructure.

Also, the government is not willing to include the Chinese players for the 5G roll out, there are other companies ready with their 5G equipment, albeit slightly costly. However, it is obvious that the central government needs to set deadlines for everything and need to ensure that these are met, only then we can expect some sort of 5G connectivity to roll out early next year.

Till that happens and stars align, you can hold on to your next purchase of 5G ready phones, in case you were planning to. 

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Jitendra Soni

Jitendra has been working in the Internet Industry for the last 7 years now and has written about a wide range of topics including gadgets, smartphones, reviews, games, software, apps, deep tech, AI, and consumer electronics.