With 5G spectrum auctions coming to a close, telcos are now focused on accelerating the roll-out of 5G networks. The country has started witne­ssing widespread action in the 5G space as industry stakeholders accelerate their efforts to develop a robust ecosystem. The handset market, being one of these stakeholders, is stepping up its efforts to enable 5G to reach end consumers. As wide-scale 5G networks are on the cusp of being ro­ll­­ed out, smartphone brands are lining up to launch more 5G-enabled handsets.

Smartphones with advanced 5G pro­cessors are rapidly capturing consumer sh­a­re, especially in the affordable and mid-ra­nge segments. In these segments, 5G pro­cessors have been coupled with features such as enhanced battery life, fast charging technologies and better camera quality. Another key trend has been the rise of telco-handset player partnerships to enable a swift transition to 5G.

Market overview

According to a report by Cyber Media Research, 5G handset shipments grew 30 per cent year on year in the quarter ended September 2022. On the back of the recent 5G auctions, 5G smartphone shipments are continuing to gain momentum. Meanwhile, handset manufacturers are focused on la­unching more 5G handsets to cater to the increasing demand. Some vendors have al­ready launched software through which handset users can migrate to 5G networks without replacing their smartphones.

Rising demand for 5G handsets

Demand for 5G handsets has registered monumental growth in India. Over the past few quarters, several brands, including Samsung, Oppo, Vivo, Realme, Moto­rola and Poco, among others, have laun­ched 5G smartphones across various price ranges. 5G handset prices have gradually been falling since the launch of the tech­no­logy, in a drive to capture the large chu­nk of population that is looking for low-priced smartphones. Intense competition among original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and the availability of cheaper 5G chipsets are expected to push down prices further, while the launch of more 5G hand­sets in the budget segment will furth­er boost demand in the category.

The category of 5G smartphones in the Rs 10,000-Rs 15,000 price segment is expected to be the next big battlefield for handset brands. With the rise in consumer aspirations, the market has shown a fairly quick replacement rate. Moreover, higher internet adoption, propelled by the rise of fintech, e-health and e-learning, is expec­ted to fuel demand for smartphones.

Telco-handset player partnerships

Smartphones with advanced 5G processors are rapidly capturing consumer mindshare, especially in the affordable and mid-range segments. To tap this opportunity and help shape the 5G handset ecosystem, telecom operators are actively inking pacts with handset brands.

For instance, Xiaomi India is collaborating with Airtel to offer support for the telco’s “5G Plus” network on all Xiaomi and Redmi smartphones. The users of Xia­omi 12 Pro, Mi 11 Ultra, Xiaomi 11T Pro, Xiaomi 11 Lite NE 5G, Xiaomi 11i Hyper­Charge, Xiaomi 11i, Mi 11X Pro, Mi 11X, Mi 10T Pro, Mi 10T and Mi 10 will get the benefits of Airtel 5G. Simi­larly, in the af­fordable segment, Redmi K50i, Redmi 11 Prime 5G, Redmi Note 11 Pro+ 5G, Redmi Note 11T 5G and Redmi Note 10T 5G will be able to stream 5G services.

Cu­­­rr­ent users of Xiaomi and Redmi devi­ces with 4G SIMs need not change their SIM cards. Customers can use Airtel 5G services, wherever available, on their existing 4G SIM cards, provided they have sm­­art­phones that support 5G networks. Meanwhile, Oppo has announced that all Air­tel customers can experience seamless 5G connectivity on its 5G devices.

Further, Reliance Jio is collaborating with Google to develop an ultra-affordable 5G smartphone. According to reports, the phone will have a 6.5 inch HD+IPS LCD screen with a resolution of 1,600 x 720 pixels and a refresh rate of 60 Hz. The device is expected to have Qualcomm Snapdragon 480 5G CPU, 4 GB of RAM, 32 GB of user-expandable storage and an Adreno 619 GPU. The operator is also collaborating with Samsung for its 5G network roll-out in India. Meanwhile, Oppo has released so­ft­­ware updates for the Oppo Reno 8 Pro, Oppo Reno 8, Oppo Reno 7, Oppo F21 Pro, Oppo F19 Pro+, Oppo K10 and Oppo A53s, and these devices are now ready for Jio’s stand-alone networks.

Meanwhile, Vodafone Idea Limited (Vi) has partnered with OnePlus to make 5G accessible to smartphone users in In­dia. With this partnership, Vi and OnePlus will work together to drive the 5G ecosystem in the country. OnePlus’s flagship de­vi­ces, such as the latest OnePlus 10T, OnePlus 10 Pro and OnePlus 10R, as well as the Nord 2T, Nord CE 2 Lite and Nord CE 2, have been tested on the 5G spectrum bands acquired by Vi in Delhi.

Me­an­while, the telco has announced that it will continue to partner with various OEM brands to enable its 4G customers to upgrade their handsets to 5G.

Vi has also partnered with Vivo to drive 5G device adoption in India. Vivo has successfully tested its recently launched smartphones Vivo V25 and T1 5G on the 5G spectrum bands acquired by Vi in New Delhi. Separately, Nokia has announced that Vi will use its dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) solution in the access layer to upgrade its network to 5G in order to meet future service capacity and reliability needs. The new compact and scalable DWDM solution will allow Vi to optimise fibre resources while ensuring the future upgrade capability of its network to 200G and beyond.

Meanwhile, Realme, the first brand to launch a 5G-enabled smartphone in India in 2020, has partnered with Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio and Vi to offer bundled 5G smartphones.

Further, Apple has rolled out a beta update for select iPhone users in India in order to collect early feedback about the net­work’s efficiency, ahead of a broader roll-out in December 2022. 5G services have been rolled out with the iOS 16.2 be­­ta update on iPhone 14, iPhone 13, iPhone 12 and iPhone SE(3). Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio customers using supported iPhones can soon experience 5G speeds before 5G becomes publicly available.

Motorola, a subsidiary of Lenovo, has started rolling out over-the-air updates to its devices to enable support for 5G non-stand-alone (NSA) and SA networks. Ac­cor­ding to Motorola, the 5G SA software up­date is being rolled out for Jio users, while the 5G NSA software update is being rolled out for Airtel and Vi users, simultaneously, thereby enabling consumers to experience seamless 5G across operators.

The way forward

Net, net, the handset ecosystem in India is ready to keep pace with the telcos’ aggressive plans for 5G roll-out. The governme­nt has also been playing a vital role in sha­ping the overall 5G landscape. It re­­ce­n­tly sought weekly or biweekly status updates from telecom operators and sm­art­phone makers on their 5G network roll-outs and the number of devices on-boarding the network. Together, these stakeholders are actively involved in enabling the swift transition to 5G.

Anand Kumar Sah