Within a short span of time, 4G services in India have acquired a significant share in the internet subscriber base, with the increase in network coverage and user interest. The rising penetration of 4G services augurs well for stakeholders across the telecom value chain. These include telecom infrastructure pro­­viders, handset manufacturers, device manufacturers, equipment vendors, and testing and measurement (T&M) players.

These stakeholders have played a vital role in setting up the 4G ecosystem in the country. While infrastructure providers, equipment vendors and T&M players have helped operators in expanding their 4G coverage, handset vendors and device manufacturers have helped in bringing more 4G users on board.

According to industry reports, 4G av­aila­bility in India currently stands at 86.26 per cent, leaving scope for further growth. Operators’ 4G expansion drive to achieve 100 per cent coverage will create several business opportunities, there­­by opening up new avenues for industry stakeholders.

tele.net takes a look at the role of key stakeholders in the 4G ecosystem…

Telecom infrastructure providers

Telecom infrastructure providers support operators in expanding their networks and have thus benefited from the growth of 4G. Given the diverse spectrum holdings in India, each operator has a unique mix of spectrum, ranging from 800 MHz to 2500 MHz. However, 4G has largely been rolled out on higher frequencies, which su­ffer from high propagation losses. To maintain the quality of data service in den­se areas and mitigate the propagation losses, operators require additional tower sites even in areas that already have coverage. The growing demand for new tenancies and deployments provides opportunities for the infrastructure business. Fur­ther, operators require infill sites for augmenting 4G capacity, and new sites for expanding their 4G reach, which drives the grow­th of the tower industry.

In addition, with the increase in data uptake and 4G deployments, there is a greater need for backhaul technology to support the centralised and cloud radio access network, the distributed and cloud mobile core network and the multi-access edge computing network. To build backhaul capacity, operators are focusing on fibre infrastructure and advanced micro­wave systems with higher-order modulations. The telecom tower industry can participate in a big way to create this infrastructure on a shared basis. While on the one hand, operator consolidation will slow down the roll-out of new infrastructure, on the other hand, operators’ 4G push will continue to drive business growth of infrastructure players.

Handset and device manufacturers

The improved 4G penetration and better network coverage have also provided an impetus to the 4G handset market. Accor­d­ing to industry reports, the shipment of 4G-enabled handsets rose 80 per cent in 2017, accounting for about half of the total devices shipped. Further, most of the handset players have launched affordable 4G smartphones, priced as low as Rs 3,000. However, the poor proliferation of smartphones in rural and remote areas restricts access to even basic internet services. Therefore, the majority of the population in such areas owns basic feature phones.

To capitalise on this opportunity, operators and handset vendors have launched 4G-enabled feature phones that come loaded with smart features at affordable prices. The main objective behind the la­un­­ch of these phones was to familiarise people without internet access with the be­nefits of the internet while not deviating from the basic design, language and affor­dability of a feature phone, thus en­suring affordability and ease of use.

This trend was triggered by Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited (RJIL), which laun­ched its JioPhone handset in 2017. RJIL’s 4G feature phone received an overwhelming response. As a result, incumb­en­ts too jumped on the bandwagon, intro­­­ducing self-branded feature phones or launching phones in partnership with hand­­set vendors through co-branding and bundled offers. As a result, the feature ph­o­ne segment recorded a 17 per cent annual growth in 2017 after registering a decline for three consecutive years. As per industry estimates, about 200 million 4G feature phones could be potentially sold in India over the next five years. This highlights the huge data appetite of users, who may have low budgets but are keen to access high speed 4G services.

In addition, 4G has opened up avenues for manufacturers of other devices such as 4G-enabled dongles, Mi-Fi and tablets. This can be attributed to the rise in the adoption of over-the-top (OTT) services, content-based applications and the need for 24-hour internet connectivity. In sum, the devices market has grown phenomenally on the back of increased 4G coverage, and will gain further momentum as operators continue to expand their 4G reach.

Equipment vendors

Apart from handset and device manufacturers, telecom equipment vendors have contributed to an evolving 4G ecosystem. Global equipment providers such as Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei and ZTE have been partnered with telecom operators to help them upgrade and modernise their networks and deploy suitable infrastructure to enhance 4G capacity and coverage.

Meanwhile, equipment vendors are helping operators in making the transition to 5G technology. To this end, Bharti Air­tel recently collaborated with China-based Huawei Technologies for India’s first 5G network trial at the former’s network experience centre in Manesar, Gurugram. Go­ing forward, as future-ready 5G technologies take centre stage, the industry will witness several operator-vendor collaborations around machine-to-machine and internet of things technologies.

T&M players

The introduction of 4G services has given a significant impetus to the T&M market. As a growing number of operators are joining the 4G bandwagon, partnerships with T&M vendors have been on the rise. T&M vendors enable operators to test their networks for service quality and experience. Further, with the growing uptake of 4G services, operators have started moving towards voice over long term evolution (VoLTE) networks. Deploying VoLTE networks requires several rounds of testing in terms of data migration to the next-generation network. Moreover, testing of the end-to-end integrated measurement system and signalling over the LTE radio access network is a key requirement for providing seamless VoLTE services. These requirements can only be met by T&M vendors.

In recent years, quality of service (QoS) has become an extremely crucial parameter that helps reduce customer churn on an operator’s network. With subscribers demanding better coverage, voice quality and data performance, and higher uptime, QoS has emerged as a key driver for service uptake. This puts pressure on operators to engage in continuous and reliable testing at all stages of the 4G network life cycle, thereby creating opportunities for T&M vendors.

Meanwhile, the assembly and end-to-end manufacturing of 4G smartphones, feature phones and other devices creates several testing requirements, which can be met only by T&M vendors. Going forward, the increasing complexity of devices and OTT applications will essentially drive the demand for wireless testing eq­uip­­ment at the research and development and manufacturing stages.

The way ahead

Net, net, all industry stakeholders are playing a key role in shaping the 4G eco­system in the country, promoting 4G services and bringing more users onto this platform. A “cashless” economy will further drive the expansion of 4G services. In­creasing deployments will create several business opportunities for industry stakeholders. Going forward, given operators’ efforts to expand coverage to remote areas, 4G is likely to emerge as a key driver for future digital growth.