India’s 5G roll out has been delayed yet again through a combination of factors, continuing a long running saga that has coincided with quite rapid extension of 4G LTE coverage to over half the population. There will be 782m 4G subscribers in the country by the end of 2021, up from 638m a year earlier, so it can be argued these 5G delays have not affected overall improvement in mobile service across India.
The latest 5G delay was prompted by the Department of Telecommunications in India extending the 5G trial period for the big three telcos Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel, and Vodafone Idea by six months, causing in turn the 5G spectrum auction that had been scheduled for the first quarter of 2022 to be pushed back to late in that year.
In any case, that earlier date for 5G auctions had looked increasingly unlikely as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had been dragging its feet over giving recommendations for several bands, including the 700 MHz, mid band 3.3GHz-3.6GHz, and millimeter wave 24.25GHz to 28.5GHz.
TRAI has yet to determine base pricing and quantity of airwaves to be made available, with a further complication being that a substantial tranche of spectrum is owned by the country’s defense and space research organizations, so will involve negotiations to free up.
On top of this there is India’s unique promotion of its version of 5G called 5Gi. This was developed with the aim of expanding 5G coverage as quickly and affordably as possible in rural areas by adding Low Mobility Large Cell (LMLC) technology designed to boost signal transmission range of a base station. This is not the same as fixed wireless access which transmits to a specific point, but does cater for the expectation that many rural users will not be moving around that much, allowing use of a new transmit waveform to boost range.
At first, 5Gi looked on course for deployment after gaining approval as a 5G variant by the ITU. But since then, concerns have mounted over cost and compatibility implications of deploying an alternative version of 5G. Crucially, after initially giving some support, the big three telcos have lined up with repeated calls to the Indian government to pursue a technology-neutral approach to 5G and urged for global harmonization by incorporating 5Gi standards within subsequent 3GPP releases.
They argued through their representative body COAI (Cellular Operators Association of India) that this would ensure early adoption by operators, although would require agreement by 3GPP, which unlike the ITU has been slow to endorse 5Gi fully.
One reason for fading interest in 5Gi is that although technically well suited to India’s geography and demography, there are other solutions to the rural conundrum. These include small cells and Integrated Access and Backhaul (IAB), while in other regions operators have found they can enable larger cell sizes within the existing 5G standards.
Another option is use of relays to achieve wide coverage cost effectively.
So 5Gi then may fall by the wayside of mobile technology history, as Indian operators adopt some of these other measures. But the country will still be later deploying 5G than the major economies it now measures itself against, even if not compared with other developing countries with similar wealth per capita.