A recent report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India and Kantar states that in 2022, 52 per cent of India’s population (approximately 759 million people) accessed the internet at least once a month. The report also hi­ghlights that out of the 759 million active internet users in India, around 399 million are from rural areas, indicating that rural India is driving the growth of the internet in the country.

Despite these impressive numbers, India is far behind the rest of the world in terms of fixed-broadband service adoption. The country ranks 138th in the wo­rld in fixed broadband adoption, with only around 20 million connections. This is due to the lack of infrastructure to facilitate wired broadband connections. The solution is a fixed wireless access (FWA) co­mmunication system, which could be the first step towards achieving nationwide internet connectivity.

Over-the-air internet

FWA is a wireless connection that offers high-speed internet access using wireless technology instead of traditional wired connections. In cities, it is relatively easy to lay down optical fibre cables to connect to the internet, but this is not the case in remote and rural areas. AirFiber, one FWA solution, provides broadband services to homes without the need to reach the last mile using cumbersome ground fibre. FWA solutions have been around for over two decades, but their adoption has been slow. Today, 5G is driving renewed interest, making FWA a more competitive solution vis-à-vis established fixed technologies such as optical fibre.

AirFiber services in India

To address the connectivity issue in rural India, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) launched Bharat AirFiber services in 2020. Now, Reliance Jio (Jio) and Bharti Airtel (Airtel) are set to redefine the country’s internet landscape with their latest 5G AirFiber services promising to bring high-speed wireless internet to homes across India.

A look at the key AirFiber offerings by telcos in India…

BSNL Bharat AirFiber

BSNL Bharat AirFiber is a Wi-Fi broadband service that was launched as part of the government’s Digital India initiative. It provides a connection bandwidth of 100 Mbps for up to 5 km, which is extendable to up to 20 km depending on the quality of the air medium and the strength of the radio frequency (RF) signal used.

It is an affordable offering that provides high-speed broadband services, including voice services, through RF technology at budget-friendly tariffs on the free spectrum band. The free spectrum band has minimal interference, making it ideal for rural areas. Similarly, since Wi-Fi routers, RF equipment and other appliances such as micro­waves and ovens are less commonly used in rural areas, interference in these frequency channels is extremely low. Furthermore, BSNL has aggressively sought the possibility of expanding the deployment of Air­Fiber connections and has introduced new mechanisms with plenty of flexibility to encourage expansion.

The company offers high-speed internet data through monthly plans under Bha­rat AirFiber, covering all three major services – internet data, voice calling and TV. There are state-wise BSNL Wi-Fi plans under Bharat AirFiber as well.

Airtel Xstream AirFiber

Airtel Xstream AirFiber is an FWA offering with 5G speeds that was made available on August 7, 2023. It is currently available in Delhi and Mumbai, while a pan-India roll-out is planned to be conducted in a phased manner.

Airtel Xstream AirFiber is perfect for those who do not have access to a fixed-line internet connection, and those who live in fibre coverage gaps. This wireless home internet device operates on Airtel’s 5G Plus network, offering super-fast Wi-Fi speeds. With inbuilt Wi-Fi 6 technology, this service provides 50 per cent higher speed than Wi-Fi 5 routers, along with be­tter coverage and reliability. It offers ethernet ports for wired connections at the back of the device, which can be self-installed. It also offers the flexibility to connect up to 64 devices simultaneously, while the Xstream AirFiber app makes ma­nagement easy. In addition, it consumes less battery power from connected devices and uses non-standalone technology, enhancing existing 4G connectivity.

Airtel Xstream AirFiber plans start at Rs 799 per month and offer internet speeds of up to 100 Mbps. Users can also pay Rs 4,435 for six months, with an additional security deposit of Rs 2,500 for the AirFiber router.

Jio AirFiber

Reliance Jio, known for its innovative stri­des in the telecom industry, has launched Jio AirFiber, a wireless plug-and-play 5G hotspot. Jio AirFiber was launched on Sep­tember 19, 2023, across eight metropolitan cities, namely Ahmedabad, Benga­luru, Che­nnai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolka­ta, Mu­mbai and Pune. It uses true 5G technology to create personal Wi-Fi networks without the need for physical wiring.

The Jio AirFiber service offers speeds of up to 1 Gbps and features parental controls, support for Wi-Fi 6 and an integrated security firewall. This device enables multi-gigabit speeds, allowing users to enjoy multiple video streams and view various camera angles live in ultra-high definition. The service is based on standalone 5G architecture and includes the Jio AirFiber Home Gateway. With Jio AirFiber, customers can enhance their entertainment experience while powering their home’s security system (CCTV cameras), cloud PC, internet of things products and more.

Jio’s existing optical fibre network stretches over an impressive 1.5 million km and connects around 15,000 homes daily. However, with AirFiber, the goal is to boost this number to 150,000 homes every day. Jio AirFiber offers a range of plans catering to diverse user needs. There are three Jio AirFiber Max plans and three Jio AirFiber plans, and all plans offer unlimited data.

5G FWA potential in India

The emergence of 5G technology is poised to revolutionise various industries by introducing novel and innovative solutions that enhance user experiences. The innovative use cases are expected to generate fresh revenue streams for operators and boost their returns on investment.

However, 5G technology has not yet reached its peak in India. The reason cited by analysts is the high cost of customer premises equipment (CPE). For instance, the average cost of FWA routers is over $100, making it impractical for telecom operators to install the equipment at prices preferred by consumers, given the low average revenue per user in the country. The­refore, it is necessary to reduce the total cost of 5G FWA CPE to accelerate deployment and adoption in the Indian market.

However, the government recently added 5G FWA equipment to the production-linked incentive scheme for telecom and networking products to support the telecom industry. Equipment manufacturers can now claim benefits for local manufacturing of 5G FWA equipment, increasing availability and affordability for operators. Additionally, 5G millimetre wave extended-range technology can help telcos deliver everything consumers need at very low costs.

According to a report by JM Financial, the industry is still grappling with the development of exclusive use cases for 5G, except for 5G FWA. Despite the potential for monetisation, the adoption of 5G FWA is likely to be gradual, due to limited penetration and the absence of use cases. Despite significant investments in 5G networks and spectrum auctions, monetisation remains a challenge.

However, Ericsson predicts that 5G enhanced mobile broadband and FWA are the initial 5G use cases that will attract new customers and increase adoption. It is believed that 5G will become the fastest-deployed mobile generation to date and will have the fastest uptake of any mobile generation, reaching one billion subscriptions two years earlier than 4G. Ericsson has forecasted that by 2028, there will be 5 billion 5G subscriptions worldwide, with FWA connections reaching 300 million and 5G accounting for almost 80 per cent of FWA connections.

Future outlook

With respect to next-generation 5G services, telecom players in India are still trying to crack the code for monetisation, except for 5G FWA. 5G FWA could pot­entially be a way to enable the government to realise its vision of a digitally connected India, especially since broadband penetration is only at 10 per cent. In fact, it could be the source of an additional revenue str­eam, while also being the key to bridging the digital divide in India.