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15 November 2022

Airtel prepares ground for private 5G over millimeter wave in India

While India’s public 5G infrastructure roll-out accelerates there is great interest also in the contest behind the scenes for private 5G customers, seen as more likely to generate significant revenues for operators and other technology players in the immediate term at least.

The two largest operators, Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel, have been jockeying for position, but as in some other countries – such as Germany especially – a number of major enterprises are determined to obtain their own spectrum and bypass the operators.

In India there is also one provider, Adani Data Networks, that came in through the back door during the summer’s 5G spectrum auctions. The subsidiary of Adani Enterprises acquired 20-year rights to 400 MHz of spectrum in the 26 GHz millimeter wave band in the auction, paying about $27m. This was small beer compared with the amounts paid by the big two for lower bands, but Adani’s spectrum is dedicated to private 5G. It plans to use it in its own data centers, as well as for an app it is developing to support a range of applications, singling out electricity distribution to airports, and retailing gas to ports, among others.

Adani is seeking to exploit mmWave spectrum for private 5G and the established operators are also looking at that strategy, particularly Bharti Airtel, which is presently promoting 5G Standalone (SA) technology for some enterprises’ applications, having also acquired some spectrum at 26 GHz. However, Airtel is also exploring private enterprise use across all the 19,800 MHz of spectrum it acquired across several bands, for $5.4bn, in the 5G auction that concluded in early August 2022.

“While these use cases are very niche today,” admitted Airtel’s managing director, Gopal Vittal, “we are already doing our trials to serve customers where needed.”

As well as some enterprise applications, Airtel is also testing its mmWave spectrum for fixed wireless access (FWA). The common element is that enterprise use cases and FWA services are not dependent on consumers acquiring 5G handsets, which will tend to happen more slowly in developing countries. That applies to India proportionately, even if significant numbers of 5G phones are being sold to more affluent customers given the large population.

The operator’s 5G service has exceeded expectations for early growth, having notched up 1m unique 5G subscribers less than a month after commercial launch. That might reflect the low hanging fruit of wealthier early adopters, but there are signs that 5G is winning faster acceptance than had been expected.

Wireless Watch discussed (November 8 issue) how Airtel’s arch-rival, market leader Reliance Jio, was deploying WiFi broadband services via 5G in public venues in the country, this being a variant of FWA where access is shared among multiple consumers as they pass through. Such first use of 5G for FWA and 5G WiFi is occurring in other developing countries, such as Kenya with Safaricom.

India’s enterprise 5G scene has been evolving quickly in several respects this year, stimulated by the 5G auction and also the country’s determination to become a technological powerhouse rivaling China or even the USA, distant though that prospect might appear now.

There has also been agonizing over how best to achieve ambitions under the banner of ‘Make in India’, which nearly led the country’s overall 5G strategy astray. For several years the country was intent on deploying its own version of 5G called 5Gi, which had been proposed as being more suitable fo

r the country’s extensive terrain by operating at lower frequencies to extend range. It gained some traction among enterprises, after being promoted strongly by the Telecommunications Standards Development Society of India (TSDSI). This body argued that 5Gi’s Low Mobility Large Cell method – transmitting a cell-based waveform optimized for higher range at the expense of performance closer to the tower – would be “of great value in countries and regions that rely heavily on mobile technologies for connectivity but cannot afford dense deployment of base stations due to lack of deep fiber penetration, poor economics and challenges of geographical terrain”.

On this basis, 5Gi even gained won some global support after being endorsed in November 2020 by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). But it was vehemently opposed by the telcos, especially Airtel, which argued correctly that even India was not big enough to plough a separate furrow from the rest of the 5G world and that the impact of deploying it would be to emasculate the country’s 5G roll-out and even retard economic growth. That argument prevailed and now 5Gi has been effectively abandoned in favor of the 3GPP standards.

The telcos appear to have been less successful in blocking the reservation of some 5G spectrum for private enterprise deployment, although that argument is still rumbling on (see separate item this week on Tata). It is clear that India sees 5G, both public and private, as a critical part of a broad and ambitious program of national digital transformation required not to just for internal efficiencies but also social reform, building on the software prowess already established, to become a successful maker of hardware and semiconductors as well.

This involves expanding beyond just 5G deployment to become an exporter of platforms for enterprise and pubic 5G networks. A key mover on this front is Reliance Industries (RIL), because it not only owns Jio but is also one of the country’s biggest manufacturers of communications and engineering equipment. The company’s chair Mukesh Ambani has outlined plans to package the technologies developed for Indian 5G and market them as a portfolio of products and services around the world, rather as some Japanese companies such as Rakuten have been doing.

This ‘platforms-as-product’ approach looks being emulated by Airtel, which has already been active in the Open RAN market, while other Indian vendors have jumped in, one being HFCL, which has announced 5G Lab-as-a-Service to complement the 100-plus 5G labs pledged by the government. HFCL has promised to provide an “automated test environment for the private sector, academia and government to work together on product innovations from concept to reality”.

Tata, another major Indian conglomerate, has opened a Private 5G Global Center of Excellence through its communications subsidiary, focused on Industry 4.0 applications and capabilities for enterprises with 5G use case trials under way. Private 5G then has become pivotal to India’s grand ambitions to become a leading all-round technological power, extending its influence beyond its traditional strongholds in software.