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Why Airtel's call for a framework for 5G devices makes sense

Airtel argues that since Centre has liberalised spectrum, operators are free to choose any band to provide any technology (2G, 3G, 4G, 5G)

Airtel, Reliance Jio, Vodafone Idea and MTNL are in the midst of six-month-long 5G trials where they are using a mix of 700 MHz (meghertz), 3.5 GHz and 26 GHz bands for testing Airtel, Reliance Jio, Vodafone Idea and MTNL are in the midst of six-month-long 5G trials where they are using a mix of 700 MHz (meghertz), 3.5 GHz and 26 GHz bands for testing

Even though a full-fledged launch of 5G is still some quarters away, the Sunil Mittal-run Bharti Airtel is already preparing the ground for its 5G foray. In a letter written to the department of telecommunications (DoT), the telco has asked it to make guidelines so new 5G devices sold in India must support all spectrum bands. Currently, the 5G devices sold in India support just a 3.5 GHz (gigahertz) band, which is a restricting factor as per Airtel.

In its letter, Airtel has reportedly argued that since the government has liberalised the spectrum, the operators are free to choose any band to provide any technology (2G, 3G, 4G, 5G). Hence, the government should consider putting a framework where device manufacturers can roll out 5G devices that can support any of the bands available with telcos.

"With the spectrum liberalisation and technology becoming inter-operable, it makes sense to align the device ecosystem. Why restrict devices with a particular band as it had happened during the 3G phase where some (3G) devices were supporting only the 2,100 MHz band. Rather than playing catch up, India has an opportunity to assess its requirement on the 5G front," says an Airtel source.

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While the government is yet to announce the dates for 3.5 GHz spectrum auctions -- which has emerged as the most popular band for 5G rollouts globally -- the telcos are not bound by any rules to use only 3.5 GHz for 5G. Why?

Till 2008, spectrum was assigned in 800 MHz or 900/1800 MHz band, depending upon whether telcos would deploy CDMA or GSM technology, respectively. Spectrum liberalisation in 2016 enabled operators to efficiently allocate spectrum bands across 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G services. Some telcos spent a huge amount to get their un-liberalised spectrum converted into the liberalised spectrum.

Also read: Apple to launch budget 5G iPhones early next year

Right now, the shipments of 5G-enabled devices are tiny. It doesn't matter whether these devices support only the 3.5 GHz band. But when the country rolls out 5G likely by next year, the demand for 5G devices is expected to grow exponentially, and it would be ideal that these devices support different bands.

Telcos like Airtel, Reliance Jio, Vodafone Idea and MTNL are in the midst of six-month-long 5G trials where they are using a mix of 700 MHz (meghertz), 3.5 GHz and 26 GHz bands for testing.

Also read: Airtel conducts 5G network trial in Mumbai, achieves download speed of 1.2 gbps

Airtel has already demonstrated the country's first live 5G service over a commercial network in Hyderabad on the 1,800 MHz band in January. These telcos will likely deploy a mix of bands to deliver 5G.

As for the existing devices, which just support 3.5 GHz, a simple software upgrade would enable them to support other bands as well. Globally, the 5G device ecosystem is developing fast. Soon, plenty of 5G devices will support different frequencies in sub-6 GHz (spanning 450 MHz to 6 GHz) and millimetre-wave frequencies (spanning 24.25 GHz to 52.6 GHz).

Also read: Airtel, Intel join hands to accelerate 5G network development in India