India’s ride towards 5G just got bumpier with India’s telecom regulator refusing to budge from its earlier recommended prices of spectrum. This has operators worried. Already suffering a huge debt burden, their revenue streams have been constricted by ultra-low telecom charges in a hyper-competitive market. Last month, the government did make the right noises about “inclusive" 5G services that everyone could afford. But with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) sticking to its stand, the department of telecommunications (DoT) is now in a sticky spot. If the DoT reduces prices at its end, the exchequer’s intake would likely fall short of TRAI’s projections; if not, the auction would risk failure.

This upgradation of telecom technology is expected to raise efficiency in agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare, education and other sectors. Mobile telephony, after all, is part of the country’s enabling infrastructure, especially vital to the objectives of Digital India. For these plans to work out, auction reserve prices need to be low. Moreover, India should not end up lagging other countries on 5G adoption. It’s not a good sign that the government has still not finalized guidelines for 5G trials.

Just one operator, Reliance’s Jio, has a 4G-only network that can effortlessly be upgraded to 5G. Its loss-making rivals Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, which have legacy 2G and 3G networks as well, will need to work harder at it. Without affordable spectrum available for 5G services, the ideal of a market shaped by healthy competition may begin to look distant. That would eventually impact the economy negatively.

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