The monetary and infrastructure requirements set by the department of telecommunications (DoT) for these trials are sending equipment vendors into a frenzy.
“The key requirement for 5G trials is that it has to be stand-alone, which means all the equipment has to be dedicated for 5G only and none of the existing 4G network and IT infrastructure can be integrated and used for trials," a senior official of a global telecom equipment maker said, requesting anonymity. “This means equipment vendors, who are bearing the entire cost of the trials, will have to import stand-alone gear, which will come into the market only later this year. The cost of a single trial could go up to ₹80 crore."
DoT initiated the process for deploying 5G in the country on 31 December by meeting major operators and vendors to discuss the broad road map for the trials, which are expected to happen in January-March.
The government will allocate the trial spectrum to its licensees, which are telecom service providers that can then choose to partner with vendors such as Nokia, Huawei, Ericsson and Samsung. Operators have to team up with vendors and submit trial proposals by 15 January.
An emailed query sent to DoT was unanswered till press time.
“The biggest worry for vendors is that operators in India are not keen to buy 5G spectrum this year," a top industry executive said on condition of anonymity. “Plus, globally, 5G use-cases are emerging for industrial applications and not for consumer-centric solutions. Why will an Indian consumer pay more to download a movie in three seconds with 5G when he can do it in one or two minutes with cheaper 4G service? No ready use-cases are available for rural areas, which the government is pressing for in trials."
5G is the next generation of wireless technology and will boost data speeds and propel the Internet of Things, with the potential to bring radical changes in agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare and education.
Earlier this month, DoT approved prices for the next spectrum auction that will happen by April. Of the 8,300 megahertz (MHz) of airwaves the government plans to offer, 6,050MHz have been allocated for 5G. The 3,300-3,600MHz band allocated for 5G has been priced at ₹492 crore per megahertz.
The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which represents operators Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea, believes that these airwaves are too expensive.
“No operator in his right mind will buy 5G spectrum in the coming auction," said Rajan Mathews, director general of COAI.
“Moreover, each operator and each vendor has to look at three scenarios for 5G trials—rural, semi-urban and urban use-cases. We wish DoT allows more flexibility on this requirement," said Mathews.
In June, DoT had approved a one-year 5G trial period and a one-time fee of ₹5,000 for entities seeking experimental spectrum to conduct trials.
The government also announced its intention to focus on three big social sectors for deployment of 5G—education, agriculture, waste management and healthcare.
To be sure, India’s 5G trials and commercial rollout are already far behind those of global peers, which have even deployed commercial networks.
South Korea was the first to commercially start 5G services in April. China’s state-run telecom operators China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom rolled out 5G services in November to consumers in 50 Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai.
The US’s Verizon Communications kick-started 5G services in October 2018 in Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento, using non-standard gear.