Global efforts for the commercial launch of 5G have gained significant momentum recently. South Korean telecom providers SK Telecom, KT and LG Uplus rolled out their 5G services on April 3, 2019, two days before the scheduled launch date of April 5, 2019. In the US, Verizon launched wireless 5G in Chicago and Minnesota a week earlier than planned. AT&T followed suit and launched its mobile 5G network, which is now live in 19 cities. The series of 5G launches globally highlights the importance of 5G in the global information and communication technology (ICT) sector.
The scenario is not very different in India. Ericsson Consumer Lab estimates that one in three consumers would change their operator if their existing service provider did not switch on 5G within six months of the launch of the service in the country. Such high consumer elasticity makes it imperative for Indian telecom operators to modernise their networks to survive the competition and avoid potential subscriber losses in the future. To this end, telecom operators have been partnering with network equipment vendors to make their networks 5G-ready.
tele.net takes a look at the steps being taken by Indian operators to prepare their networks for the launch of 5G…
Bharti Airtel was among the first operators in India to announce the deployment of state-of-the-art massive multiple input multiple output (MIMO) technology. Massive MIMO is a pre-5G technology, which will make the network future- ready to manage the increasing volume of data with the launch of 5G. The deployments began in Bengaluru and Kolkata and were later expanded to other parts of the country.
In February 2019, Bharti Airtel and Huawei successfully conducted a 5G network trial at Airtel’s Network Experience Centre in Manesar, Gurugram. The test set-up included a 5G radio access network (RAN) operating in the 3.5 GHz band, 5G core and a 50GE network slicing router. During the trial, a user throughput of more than 3 Gbps was achieved. This is the highest measured throughput in the 3.5 GHz band with 100 MHz bandwidth and an end-to-end network latency of approximately 1 millisecond. The trial demonstrated enhanced spectral efficiency and services such as internet of things (IoT), augmented reality and virtual reality, which will be supported by 5G. During the same month, Bharti Airtel partnered with Nokia to conduct a trial of the latter’s homogeneous fronthaul solution, which can support 4G and 5G services. This trial is part of Bharti Airtel’s strategy to make its network future-ready to cater to the growing demand for high speed data in India. The trial is expected to improve the performance of service provider’s existing network as it prepares the network for 5G.
Recently, Bharti Airtel partnered with Ericsson to implement voice over long term evolution (VoLTE) and IMS technologies in India. Under the partnership, Ericsson will deploy its cloud VoLTE solution, an industrialised solution to deliver VoLTE services on to a customer data centre cloud. This network modernisation is part of Bharti Airtel’s Project Leap. Randeep Sekhon, chief technology officer, Bharti Airtel, stated, “We remain committed to building a state-of-the-art future-ready network as part of our network transformation programme, Project Leap, and delivering best-in-class digital experience to our smartphone customers. This partnership with Ericsson will allow us to rapidly increase our VoLTE capacity to serve the growing traffic, and prepare the network for new communication services.”
Interestingly, Reliance Jio is the only operator in favour of an early spectrum auction for the sale of 5G airwaves. Both Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea had opposed an early auction of spectrum. According to SBICap Securities, Reliance Jio will most likely launch 5G services by the second half of 2020 in a bid to stop Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel from gaining scale in the 4G segment. Jio has accelerated its 5G plans following the announcement of large fundraising plans by the two operators to augment their 4G capacity. Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel will raise approximately Rs 250 billion and Rs 320 billion respectively.
In October 2018, Reliance Jio and Ericsson demonstrated 5G use cases jointly developed by them for the mining, education and healthcare sectors. The use cases were presented over a live 5G network in Navi Mumbai and New Delhi. They leveraged gigabit speed and ultra-low latency capabilities to showcase key benefits such as the remote operation of machines and virtual reality opportunities.
Vodafone Idea Limited has been taking significant steps such as deploying pre-5G technologies to modernise and future-proof its 4G network. It has deployed massive MIMO in cities including Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Pune and Hyderabad, and plans to expand such deployments in the future. The telco has also adopted cloud in its core network with approximately two-thirds of the traffic being handled on the cloud.
In February 2019, Vodafone Idea partnered with Ericsson to deploy 5G-ready equipment across eight circles in India. As part of the three-year contract, Ericsson is supplying radio access and transport equipment to the operator from its 5G-ready Ericsson Radio System, which includes the MINI-LINK 6000 microwave backhaul solution. These solutions will provide advanced long-term evolution (LTE) capabilities and low latency microwave backhaul to Vodafone Idea’s network, and enable the rapid deployment of 5G services. This will increase overall network capacity, and improve spectral and energy efficiency.
In March 2019, Vodafone signed an agreement with Nokia for LTE network deployment across multiple service areas. Under the agreement, Nokia will deploy next- generation technologies such as single RAN Advanced, massive MIMO and small cells in order to expand Vodafone Idea’s LTE network and make it ready for 5G.
In an interview with tele.net, Vishant Vora, chief technology officer, Vodafone Idea Limited, highlighted the most popular 5G use cases. “Currently, most discussions and trials are focused on enhanced mobile broadband use cases while the other use case of ultra-low latency is being discussed at various forums. The commercial viability of the same still needs to be determined. Massive IoT scenarios are a few years away, especially as narrowband-IoT and other IoT forms have not taken great shape in 4G.”
Most operators in the country have been sceptical about the launch of 5G owing to issues ranging from limited India-specific use cases to exorbitant spectrum pricing. Bharti Airtel has rejected the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India- recommended price of 5G spectrum at Rs 4.92 billion per MHz, refusing to participate in spectrum auctions at such unviable prices. Meanwhile, Vodafone Idea believes that the spectrum auction should not be held before 2020. It is of the opinion that more time is required to develop India-specific use cases for 5G and the telecom industry needs to focus on expanding and improving the existing network.
The way forward
With the launch of 5G networks in both South Korea and the US, the global ICT industry can be seen preparing to switch on 5G on a large scale. As per Ericsson’s estimates, 5G mobile services will create business opportunities of more than $27 billion in India by 2026. With this, investments to build modern and future-proof networks are expected to increase significantly. Telcos will need to invest significantly in research and development to conduct trials for India-specific use cases in order to fully leverage 5G. On the device availability front, manufacturers such as Samsung and Huawei have already announced 5G-compatible smartphones, which are expected to be launched in India in mid-2019.
Going forward, with advancements in 5G network equipment and device availability, Indian operators are expected to switch on 5G in the metro circles initially while expanding 4G and LTE coverage in other areas.