Nishant Bansal, Senior Research Manager, IDC

With 5G spectrum auctions coming to a close, telcos are now focused on accelerating the roll-out of 5G networks. The influence of 5G in India is expected to go well beyond the consumer-focused mobile broadband sector. As additional business use cases are adopted, the effects of 5G will considerably be more profound.In an interview with, Nishant Bansal, senior research manager, IDC India, shares his views on the recently concluded 5G auctions, infrastructure-related requirements for 5G and the way forward. Edited excerpts…

How was India’s first 5G auction in terms of bidding on the part of telcos and revenue generation on the part of the government? How will it set the tone for upcoming 5G network rollouts in the country?

The auction went along expected lines in terms of bidding and revenue both. Even before the auction, the estimate was that Reliance Jio would spend around Rs 800 billion, while Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea Limited (Vi) were expected to spend approximately Rs 400 billion and Rs 180 billion, respectively. Jio ended up spending Rs 880.78 billion, while Airtel and Vi spent Rs 430.84 billion and Rs 187.99 billion, respectively.

We can expect the 5G services rollout to start in September – October 2022 timeframe in key cities. However, cities like Delhi (including NCR), Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Kolkata Bengaluru, Chennai, Pune, and towns such as Jamnagar are expected to get 5G services earlier than other cities. Meanwhile, Jio has already tested 5G in nine areas including Mumbai, Delhi, Jamnagar, Chennai, and Bengaluru.

From a revenue perspective, since reserve pricing for C-band (3300 – 3600 Mhz) was kept quite high Rs 3.17 billion per unit, which was the most expensive in the world, government was expected to make a windfall from the auctions.

Airtel and Jio have secured spectrum in all 22 circles and will be able to provide pan-India 5G services. The only difference, however, is that Jio, along with high bands i.e. 3300 Mhz and 26Ghz, went for the sub-Ghz i.e. 700 Mhz band for 5G rollout while Airtel along with high bands i.e. 3300 Mhz and 26Ghz largely went with mid-bands i.e. 1800 Mhz and 2100 Mhz for 5G rollout. Besides, Vi got 5G in 17 priority circles leaving out the likes of Assam, North East, HP, and Jammu and Kashmir.

What will be the infrastructure-related requirements to be met before India transforms into a 5G-enabled country?

India is at roughly 35 per cent fiberisation. For a pan-India 5G roll out, India needs to be at 70 per cent fiberisation, which will still take a couple of years. However, an alternative to fiberisation is wireless backhaul. Of late, the government has taken certain steps in the E-band spectrum as well. Meanwhile, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) announced that it would allow a maximum of two carriers of 250 MHz each in the E-band (71-76 GHz and 81-86 GHz) to telecom firms for backhaul of towers, or connection between cell towers, a move that would remove a major impediment and speed up the roll-out of 5G networks in the country.

Wireless backhaul is much faster to deploy compared to wired (fibre) backhaul as fibre require putting wires underground, which is expensive, time-consuming, and requires too many approvals for Right-of-Way (RoW). Also, India has 730,000 odd mobile towers and we need to get to at least the 1 million towers mark for a pan-India 5G rollout. In addition, 5G will also require small cell deployment on street furniture such as street lights, which, in turn, will require cooperation with states and local agencies such as municipal bodies. All these processes is expected to take around 2-3 years’ time.

How will the rollout of 5G support the country’s digital-first economy? What kind of a revolution will 5G bring into human and machine communication?

5G is expected to accelerate the pace of digital transformation among Indian enterprises. Some potential use cases include reliable low latency communication, machine communication (internet of things), high-speed mobile broadband, etc..  Manufacturing and healthcare is likely to be among the key early sectors that are likely to adopt 5G.

Manufacturing would deploy 5G for running smart factories; improving efficiency and productivity; and minimising human errors. Further, industrial automation via the use of robotics, and digital twins are some of the other possible examples for use in manufacturing sector.

With regard to healthcare, video telemedicine (video calling of patients with doctors); remote surgeries; real-time remote patient monitoring through IoT devices, etc. are some of the use cases.

Meanwhile, low latency and real-time data analysis will improve the human–machine and machine–machine communication significantly.

What according to you will be the three key trends to look out for in the coming year?

  • 5G adoption in consumers will follow the device refresh cycle. As consumer refresh their older generation of mobile phones, they are likely to purchase 5G smartphones. As per IDC, India is expected to have 90 million 5G smartphones by end of 2022 and add another 100 million in 2023.
  • Information Technology (IT) firms like Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), L&T Technology Services, Tech Mahindra, and some other enterprises will buy spectrum directly from the government for setting up private networks for captive use.
  • Telcos will have to run awareness campaigns among enterprises to help them understand the benefits of 5G and its potential use cases. We will see telcos getting aggressive in the business-to-business (B2B) space with their marketing.