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Telecom: 3GFinally.4GNotTooFar

It has been talked about for months. Now the 3G network is on the verge of arrival in India. But it could also be the 4G straightaway.

Kushan Mitra        Print Edition: January 11, 2009

On December 11, 2008, a rather momentous event took place when the Union Telecommunications Minister A. Raja placed a video call to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh over a third-generation (3G) mobile network. Don’t celebrate just yet, because, while this call was made on a Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL) network, the service is still a good two-three months away from a fullfledged commercial deployment.

3G network all set to be launched in India
3G network all set to be launched in India
However, despite the controversy that he has courted over the seemingly arbitrary allocation of additional second-generation (2G) spectrum, Raja has ploughed ahead with his plans for an auction of 3G spectrum for private players early in 2009. The UPA Government, which is facing mounting bills over their social programmes, is also keen on the auction to go through, as they expect to raise between Rs 20,000-40,000 crore.

The problem now is not one of Raja’s making, but mired in history. 3G might be here, but there is barely any spectrum for it. The 2100 megahertz band, which will be used for 3G, is crowded by India’s defence forces. Despite pleas to do so, the armed forces have held on to spectrum in India’s most lucrative mobile market—New Delhi. So, even if the auctions go through, the capital will have very few 3G service providers. But then again, the services have to come in the first place.

So, what really is 3G? In the hoopla surrounding the term, the question no one answers is: ‘what is the big deal about 3G?’ The short answer is that 3G will allow operators to offer voice facilities far more efficiently than today’s networks. Thanks to the High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) standard that is most likely to be used to deliver 3G services, it might be possible to allow rather high speeds over-the-air broadband.

3G, of course, is not the only story unfolding as we move into 2009. The government is planning to auction spectrum in the 2300 and 2500 megahertz band for Intel’s Wi-Max as well. However, the long and painful gestation period for Wi-Max might see it upstaged by something called Long Term Evolution (LTE) or fourth-generation (4G) mobile networks. This new standard has one inherent advantage—coupled with new types of radio modules on handsets, it can operate over a range of frequencies.

The good news is that unlike other countries where terrestrial TV (signals you pick up with an aerial) has crammed the 700-megahertz spectrum with channels, India has a lot of free spectrum there. In the US, which is switching over to an all-digital TV broadcast regime, the 700-megahertz spectrum was auctioned for several billion dollars. LTE, which will provide lightning fast broadband and voice channels, can operate in this frequency. Better still, LTE is on the verge of its first commercial deployments globally.

India’s delay in going mobile allowed the country to skip the trouble of legacy mobile systems, which plagued some other nations. The inordinate delay in launching 3G networks might just mean that Indian telecom can do another “skip” and enter the field of 4G.

To the uninitiated, 4G (also known as Beyond 3G), is a term used to describe the next complete evolution in wireless communications. A 4G system is able to provide a comprehensive IP solution, where voice, data and streamed multimedia can be given to users on an “anytime, anywhere” basis, and at higher data rates than previous generations.

The good news is that having delayed 3G implementation for so long, service providers in India could decide to skip the HSPA and Wi-Max standards and deploy LTE or 4G, which is more efficient than HSPA and better at data than Wi-Max. Don’t be surprised if India signs up to the LTE bandwagon early on.

Can I use 3G networks next year?
Sooner than you think, as Delhi and Mumbai users will be able to dial on MTNL’s “Jadoo” 3G service from February-March. BSNL should also start 3G services soon.

Will I be able to use my expensive iPhone 3G?
No. That is locked to the Airtel or Vodafone networks. You could use an unlocked iPhone 3G, but that isn’t quite legal.

If I have a fancy 3G device, will I be able to transfer my number to MTNL or BSNL?
Mobile Number Portability (MNP) is on the cards, but the decks are yet to be cleared by the government.

When will the private operators offer 3G?
The government is planning auctions by January and private operators should have limited 3G networks by late 2009.

What is 4G all about?
4G will be a fully IP-based integrated system, providing between 100 Mbit/s and 1 Gbit/s speeds indoors and outdoors, with premium quality and high security.

Number portability

Will it create more problems than it solves?
Many in the telecom industry expect that if 3G is launched, Mobile Number Portability (MNP) will become a reality, simply because the telecom companies themselves will demand it. If large incumbents get 3G licences, they will be able to move their high-end customers over to 3G networks while retaining new numbers.

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