India’s operators are caught up in price wars and consolidation, partly sparked by the entry of Reliance Jio, and are amassing high levels of debt. This dismal landscape has led them to beg the regulator, TRAI, to give the some breathing space to extend 4G and monetize their LTE investments, before they have to splash out for 5G spectrum. However, the government is keen to place India in the 5G premier league, and says it may hold an auction as early as August 2019.
Telecoms Secretary Aruna Sundararajan revealed last week that the government is working to release a broad range of spectrum bands for 5G, and has set up a Department of Telecom (DoT) taskforce for this purpose.
It could have been worse for the operators – the government had initially aimed to sell at least some of the 5G spectrum during this fiscal year, probably in the first quarter of 2019.
Vodafone Idea, now the biggest Indian MNO after its recent merger, has led the calls for auctions to be postponed until 2020, which would still enable the operators to start deploying 5G in the first wave of roll-outs, which can be seen taking place in 2019 to 2022.
But the government has given 5G a central role in its ambitious digital and broadband plans, which aim to give every citizen access to broadband speeds of 50Mbps. So it is keen to avoid being a latecomer to new mobile technologies, as it was in 3G and 4G.