Three years after the launch of the first 5G network in the world, India has finally embarked on its journey to­wards the latest generation of telecommunication networks. As significant developments around 5G took shape, 2022 proved to be a landmark year for the country’s telecom industry. The year witnessed the much-awaited 5G spectrum auction conducted by the Department of Telecommu­nications (DoT), followed by a phased but speedy roll-out of the network by telcos.

A look at the key developments around 5G that took place during the past year and outlook for 2023…

Pre-auction developments

After detailed discussions and deliberati­ons, the government began laying the gro­undwork for 5G spectrum auctions. While presenting the Union Budget 2022-23, Nir­­­mala Sitharaman, Union Minister of Fi­­nance, announced the government’s pl­ans to conduct 5G spectrum auction during the year. The government also laun­ched the country’s first 5G test bed to facilitate the telecom industry in validating its products, prototypes and solutions in 5G as well as next-generation technologi­es. The test bed was developed as a multi-institute collaborative project by a total of eight institutes, led by IIT Madras, at an estimated cost of Rs 2.2 billion.

Later, in a major move, the Union ca­bi­net approved DoT’s proposal to conduct spectrum auctions for 5G. It also gave the go-ahead for setting up captive 5G netwo­rks by big tech firms. Shortly after, DoT issued a notice inviting applications (NIA) in order to facilitate the roll-out of 5G and augment existing telecom services. Acco­rd­ing to the NIA, the available spectrum in the 600 MHz, 700 MHz, 800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1800 MHz, 2100 MHz, 2300 MHz, 2500 MHz, 3300 MHz and 26 GHz bands was to be part of the auction. A total of 72,097.85 MHz of spectrum ac­ross 10 bands would be put up for auction with a validity of 20 years. Initially, the gov­er­n­me­nt planned to auction airwaves worth about Rs 4.3 trillion at base price.

Subsequently, DoT approved Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea Limited (Vi) and Adani Data Networks as the final participants for the auction. As per government data, Jio submitted the highest earnest money deposit (EMD) of Rs 140 billion, while Airtel and Vi put in EMD of Rs 55 billion and Rs 22 billion respectively. Meanwhile, Adani Data Networks de­po­sited Rs 1 billion, which possibly underlined its plan for picking up limited airwa­ves in select areas for captive networks.

5G spectrum auction – A historic milestone

The 5G spectrum auction took place in July-August 2022, with the government garnering a record over Rs 1.5 trillion. This is the highest ever spend on spectrum auctions, partly attributed to the upgradation in technology to 5G and relaxed payment terms. This amount will be in the form of a 20-year deferred spectrum debt at a 7.2 per cent interest rate, which eases the repayment burden for the players. A to­tal of 51,236 MHz of spectrum, or ar­ound 71 per cent of the total 72,098 MHz on offer, was sold in the auction. The auction witnessed healthy bidding for the 1800 MHz spectrum band, stemming fr­om the rising mobile broadband usage and thus the need for improving network capa­city. The per unit price of 1800 MHz airwaves in the Uttar Pradesh East circle jumped to Rs 1.6 billion, almost 76.5 per cent higher than its Rs 910 million per MHz base price. All other bands were sold at th­eir respective re­serve prices except for the 600 MHz band, which saw no takers. The 700 MHz band, which went unsold in the last two auctions witnessed participation, wherein Jio bought 10 MHz across all 22 circles.

Jio emerged as the most aggressive bidder, acquiring almost half of all the airwaves sold for a consideration of over Rs 880 billion, and it was also the only bidder to acquire spectrum in the premium 700 MHz band. The 700 MHz band, which is best suited for coverage in high-density areas, is ideal for data networks and consumer services. With this, the tel­co’s total owned spectrum footprint inc­re­a­sed significantly to 26,772 MHz (up­link + downlink), the highest in the co­untry. Mean­while, Airtel acquired 19,800 MHz spectrum by securing a pan-India footprint of 3.5 GHz and 26 GHz bands. In addition, the company was able to se­lec­tively bolster mid-band spectrum. This spectrum acquisition by Airtel was se­cured for a total consideration of Rs 430.84 billion. The operator has accumulated the largest pool of low- and mid-band spectrum (sub-GHz/1800/2100/ 2300 bands) which can be used to provide effective 5G coverage while massive capacities in the 3.5 GHz and 26 GHz bands will allow it to create 100x capacities at the least cost. Vi bid along expected lines for spectrum in the 3300 MHz and 26 GHz 5G bands, amounting to Rs 187.99 billion. Finally, Adani Data Net­works bid only Rs 2 billion for spectrum in the 26 GHz band.

Spectrum allocation and 5G launch

A few days post the conclusion of the auction, DoT issued demand notices to all the auction participants to make payments, with an option to pay in 20 equal annual instalments. Following this, the government received over Rs 178.73 billion from the players towards 5G spectrum dues. Notably, the first payout surpassed DoT’s initial calculation of Rs 133.65 billion. DoT issued the spectrum assignment letters to telcos just 17 days after the conclusion of the 5G spectrum auction, paving a smooth path for the launch of 5G services.

On October 1, 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched 5G services in India at the inauguration of the India Mobile Congress 2022, marking an im­por­tant landmark for the country’s 5G jo­urney. Numerous 5G use cases by different telecom service providers across sectors such as education, health and agriculture were unveiled.

Phased roll-outs begin

Of the three private telecom operators in India, Airtel and Jio have started rolling out their 5G services in the country. Airtel became the first operator to launch 5G services in October with over a million subscribers. The telco initially launched the services in eight cities – Bengaluru, Ch­­e­­nnai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai, Siliguri and Varanasi. The company’s decision to launch its network using non-standalone (NSA) architecture allo­w­ed it to gain the first-mover advantage. Jio, meanwhile, announced the beta trial of its True 5G services for Jio users in four cities – Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Varanasi – in early November. The operator has de­veloped an indigenous 5G core and has launched its network using 5G standalone (SA) technology. The network quality, capacity and speed using SA architecture far exceed that of 5G NSA.

Both the operators are rolling out services in a phased manner. While Airtel has so far rolled out its 5G services in 23 cities, Jio has taken the lead with 75 cities. Airtel aims to roll out 5G services in most parts of the country by March 2023 and in the en­tire country by March 2024. Bharat San­char Nigam Limited (BSNL), too, ex­pects to gradually upgrade its 4G netwo­rk to 5G by August 2023, while no anno­un­cements around the roll-out have been made by Vi.

Future outlook

India’s 5G journey has just started. The 5G auctions and service roll-outs were long overdue. The strong participation in the auctions and the unexpected entry of the Adani Group has provided fresh optimism to the industry. On the financial front, a report by CRISIL Research sugge­sts that the telecom industry would require investments of Rs 1.5 trillion-Rs 2.5 trillion in the next two to three years towards infrastructure development in order to facilitate the roll-out of 5G services. Given the sizeable investments towards spectrum acquisition and subsequent capital expenditure, telcos are expected to charge differential pricing for 5G services in the coming months. Also, the mass roll-out of 5G is expected not before fiscal year 2024, given the feeble state of fiberisation in the country. According to Ookla, in terms of speed, 5G networks in the country have reached a median download speed of 500 Mbps. Compared to the theoretical speed limit of 20 Gbps that 5G promises, there is a very long way to go. These are just some of the many roadblocks in the journey towards 5G that will need to be addressed to fu­lly realise its potential and ensure a ubiquitous roll-out. Going forward, 5G technology will usher in an era of impro­ved network performance and introduce new possibilities for critical sectors, giving a fillip to India’s digital economy.

Sarah Khan