India's tryst with 5G networks may get delayed - here's why

(Image credit: Raj N)

Update: The article has been updated with a statement of Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw.

Two of India's telecom providers began testing 5G equipment earlier in June, but it may still be some time before customers who purchased 5G-enabled devices can put it to optimal use. All because, the federal government and service providers aren't ready with the spectrum auctions yet. 

Reports indicate that the rollout of India's 5G network could get further delayed as the government is postponing the spectrum auctions from the first quarter of 2022 to the second quarter. All this because the telecom providers have actually sought more time to ensure financial and technical readiness. 

How this move impacts the government's ambitious plan of announcing commercial 5G operations to commemorate India's 75th anniversary of India's Independence on August 15 next year is a moot question now. 

The auction for the 5G spectrum is likely to take place around April-May next year, Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said on Thursday. He also noted that giving a specific timeframe for the upcoming auction will be difficult at this stage since a lot depends on the time the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) will take to finalise its views. "But, today, our estimate is by April-May. I was earlier estimating March. But, I think it will take...because consultations are complex, diverse opinions are coming," he said.

The real cause of the delay

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has given a six-month extension to the telecom providers Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea to continue with their 5G testing. The trials were to conclude on November 26, but the government has extended the time to March 2022, says a report in the Economic Times. 

However, the entire challenge does not appear to rest with the telecom providers. The report quoted unnamed sources to indicate that government itself needs to do a lot of work on making necessary spectrum available. Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, which regulates telecom operations in the country, hasn't yet started talks over possible base pricing and the quantity of airwaves to be made available. 

Given that a substantial chunk of spectrum is owned by the country's defense and space research organizations, discussions are required to free up some of it as well. Available estimates indicate that while defense establishments hold spectrum in the 3300-3400 MHz band, space research has access to the 3400-3425 MHz band. 

In the past, the telecom providers had also petitioned the government over pricing of the spectrum. They claimed that at current prices, 5G deployment could become an expensive proposition, resulting in higher costs for individuals. 

The technology impasse

There is also the additional issue around use of Chinese technology for 5G. With India being among the few that decided to stay away from its use, it has been trying to use indigenously developed technology on the software and hardware front. 

The impact also trickled down on the 5G implementation in the country. While the Government hasn’t officially denied the Chinese players like Huawei and ZTE from participating in the 5G journey, however, the ground rules laid by the department don't support Chinese companies.

This has given Indian companies a chance to develop their technology or collaborate with global vendors like Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and Qualcomm etc to source their hardware. In the end, it augurs well with the Indian PMs mantra of “Self-Reliance.”

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Raj Narayan

A media veteran who turned a gadget lover fairly recently. An early adopter of Apple products, Raj has an insatiable curiosity for facts and figures which he puts to use in research. He engages in active sport and retreats to his farm during his spare time.