Home >Industry >Telecom >Bharti Airtel tests 5G, races ahead of rivals

NEW DELHI : Bharti Airtel Ltd became the first telecom service provider to demonstrate its capability to roll out 5G wireless services in India, stealing a march on rival Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd, which plans to launch the service later this year but hasn’t completed trials.

On Thursday, Bharti announced that it has conducted on-field trials in Hyderabad to establish its ability to launch 5G, or fifth generation, services.

The next-generation wireless service will pave the way for blazing fast internet speeds and power internet of things (IoT) applications, such as driverless cars and smart cities.

Airtel’s ability to run 5G services over its existing commercial network is a win for the company, which has been struggling to play catch-up with Mukesh Ambani’s Jio for the past few years and has ceded its leadership in the Indian telecom market.

Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries Ltd, claimed in July last year that Jio has built an indigenous 5G solution and was ready to launch the service in the second half of 2021. It has not shared details of its 5G solution.

“We are the first telco to successfully demonstrate and orchestrate a live 5G service over a commercial network in Hyderabad. This demonstration emphatically validates the 5G readiness of Airtel’s network across all domains—radio, core and transport," Airtel chief executive Gopal Vittal told reporters at a press conference.

The differing timelines apart, both telcos have said that a full-fledged 5G rollout will be possible only with adequate spectrum availability.

Airtel used a block in the 1,800MHz spectrum band to operate both 5G and 4G simultaneously on its network in Hyderabad. According to experts, any band can be used for 5G service by upgrading the equipment and technology; however, telcos will have to use bands in the range of 3,300-3,600MHz to provide best high-speed and low-latency experience to customers.

Airtel’s 5G technology is capable of delivering 10 times better performance on speeds and latency compared to the existing technologies, the company claimed. In Hyderabad, the company showed that it could download a full-length movie in seconds using its 5G service, Vittal said.

“However, the real impact of 5G experience will be available to our customers only when adequate spectrum is available, and the government approvals are received," he added.

The department of telecommunications (DoT) will conduct the auction of 2,251MHz of spectrum at a reserve price of 3.92 trillion from 1 March. The bands put up for sale are 700MHz, 800MHz, 900MHz, 1,800MHz, 2,100MHz, 2,300MHz and 2,500MHz. The government did not include spectrum in the 3,300-3,600MHz bands recommended by the telecom regulator for 5G in the upcoming auction.

Experts said that the government excluded spectrum bands for 5G from the upcoming auction due to weak demand as concerns remain over the readiness of two of the three largest telcos in the country to buy radio airwaves at high reserve prices.

“Commercial deployment of 5G depends on access to 5G spectrum, the auction for which is not in sight. From the government’s perspective, it would want to be sure of sufficient interest in buying," said Mahesh Uppal, a senior telecom expert.

“The demand for spectrum will, in turn, reflect whether operators can justify bidding at the proposed high reserve price. The 5G ecosystem is still weak," Uppal added.

Airtel, as a telco, will play its role in driving the ecosystem, be it applications, content and devices, to deploy 5G to India, Vittal said. “Our network is fully 5G ready and can use any spectrum band to click on the 5G experience in some months," he said.

Analysts said cash-strapped Vodafone Idea Ltd (VIL) may not bid aggressively in the upcoming 4G auction due to large spectrum holding, relatively under-utilized network and stressed financials, let alone for 5G.

The total capital expenditure required for the rollout of 5G, including spectrum, sites and fibre, is expected to be 1.3-2.3 trillion, of which 78,800 crore to 1.3 trillion is estimated for metros and A circles, Motilal Oswal Financial Services said in a report in October.

Bharti Airtel’s shares were little changed on Thursday at 571, outperforming the benchmark Sensex’s 1.13% decline.

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