He wasn’t alone. A customer in Delhi who had signed up for Reliance Jio Infocomm’s 5G beta service is yet to receive an invite to the telco’s welcome offer. Instead, he got a message saying Jio was still checking device compatibility with its 5G standalone network.
They are among a number of users who’ve splurged on top-end smartphones in select cities where Airtel launched 5G and Jio started beta trials of the next-gen service earlier this month. But they’ve now learnt that on-ground 5G connectivity on their devices could still be over a month away. Apple devices will get 5G updates only by December. But that only means devices are almost ready, but rollouts will likely take longer and so will putting a stable 5G network in place across India.
Concerns around various smartphone models of top brands – Apple, Samsung and OnePlus among others – not supporting Airtel and Jio’s 5G networks have driven the government to take action.
It has asked telcos and smartphone makers to provide twice-weekly updates on their 5G network rollout status and on how many devices have onboarded networks as it looks to monitor and hasten the uptake of the next-gen services in the country.
More Time Needed
Top telco executives and sector analysts, though, say the immediate 5G connectivity challenges could have been avoided if carriers and device ecosystem partners had more time to roll out 5G networks and test handsets instead of launching barely a month-and-a-half after receiving airwaves from the government. 5G spectrum allotment took place on August 18, about six weeks before the October 1 launch, they pointed out. In contrast, there was a much longer gap between the 4G spectrum award and a full-services launch, they said.
“The government moved fast from auction to allocation of 5G spectrum, which followed by the high-profile launches appears to have created huge expectations around 5G services, and hence the disappointment over the immediate non-availability of 5G on many devices and locations,” said Jaideep Ghosh, telecoms expert and chief operating officer at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co.
Telcos, he said, need time to address technicalities, noting that even operators in China could offer reasonable 5G coverage only five months after spectrum allotment while Telefonica launched 5G in Germany almost 15 months after auctions.
In India too, telcos had more time to roll out 3G and 4G services, which is why the overall consumer upgradation experience had been more seamless, said the people cited above. For instance, Airtel was the first telco to roll out 4G in April 2012, which was more than a year-and-a-half after spectrum allotments had taken place in September 2010. But it took until September 2016 for the near-ubiquitous availability of 4G services, when Jio launched services.
On the 3G front, erstwhile Tata DoCoMo was the first private operator to launch services in early November 2010, two months after spectrum allotment. But larger companies like Airtel launched 3G only by late January 2011, said executives cited above.
Telco execs welcomed the government’s call for faster 5G rollouts, especially to give Indians a taste of high data speeds. But they asserted that rollouts can’t happen overnight as all 5G network planning started only in late August as it would have been impossible to import radio network gear before spectrum was allocated by the government.
They added that telcos in a smaller country like South Korea had launched 5G faster as they had a sense of the bands and quantum of the spectrum they would get before the auction. Telcos in India had to wait for the auction to end for clarity on 5G bands and the quantum of airwaves won.
“Operators could go ahead with 5G network planning, equipment imports and ecosystem creation with partners only after receiving spectrum in mid-August, and this process takes five to six months as rollouts can’t be done haphazardly,” said a top executive at one of India’s 5G operators.
Last month, Airtel MD Gopal Vittal had said at a JP Morgan investor summit that the telco would have preferred to defer its 5G rollouts by at least a year as penetration of compatible handsets is low and monetisation of consumer and enterprise use cases would take time to evolve.
Operators, in fact, have been calibrating the rollout of 5G sites to rein in energy costs amid the lack of a device ecosystem with only 8-9% of all smartphones supporting the next-gen technology. 5G requires more sites and so energy costs will surge if all of them go live. Telcos see no immediate business case for all existing 5G sites to go live as there aren’t enough devices on the mobile network.